WELLINGTON, New Zealand – New Zealand’s government acknowledged on Monday what most other countries did long ago: it can no longer completely get rid of the coronavirus.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an ongoing outbreak there.

From the start of the pandemic, New Zealand had taken an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing.


Until recently, that eradication strategy had worked remarkably well for a country of 5 million, which has reported just 27 virus deaths.

While other countries faced rising deaths and disrupted lives, New Zealanders went back to workplaces, school yards and sports stadiums, protected from any community spread.

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But that all changed when the more infectious Delta version somehow escaped a quarantine facility after being brought into the country from a traveler returning from Australia in August.

Despite New Zealand going into the strictest form of lockdown after only one local case was detected, it was ultimately not enough to completely crush the outbreak.

One factor may be that the disease spreads to certain groups that are generally more wary of authorities, including gang members and homeless people living in transitional housing.

The outbreak has risen to over 1,300 with 29 more cases being detected on Monday. Some cases have been found outside Auckland.

Ardern said seven weeks of lockdown restrictions in Auckland had helped keep the outbreak under control.

“For this outbreak, it’s clear that prolonged heavy restrictions haven’t gotten us to zero cases,” Ardern said. “But that’s okay. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can start to change the way we do things.”

New Zealand began its vaccination campaign more slowly than most other developed countries. Rates rose in August after the outbreak began, but have dropped significantly again since then.

About 65% of New Zealanders have received at least one dose and 40% are fully vaccinated. Among people 12 years of age and older, about 79% have had a jaw raised at least once.

Under Ardern’s plan starting Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to meet loved ones outside the home, early childhood centers will reopen and people will be able to go to the beach.

The dates for the phased reopening of retail stores and later bars and restaurants are yet to be decided.

Ardern said the eradication strategy has served the country incredibly well, but the government’s intention has always been to transition to safer vaccines, a change hastily made by the delta version a “game changer”.

The government’s abolitionist approach was widely supported by New Zealanders, but faced increasing criticism. Over the weekend, hundreds of people attended rallies to protest against the lockdown.

Opposition MP Chris Bishop said the government had no clear strategy for dealing with the outbreak other than complete dedication.

But Ardern said most measures to keep the outbreak under control would remain in place, including complete contact tracing and isolating infected people.

“There’s good reason for us to feel optimistic about the future,” Ardern said. “But we can’t hurry.”