New Zealand will ease the strict border controls and quarantine rules it has maintained during the pandemic under a five-stage plan announced by the prime minister Thursday, gradually reopening to travelers from abroad over the next nine months.
New Zealanders in Australia will be able to return home beginning at the end of February without spending time in hotel quarantine, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference to announce the changes to the border policy.
“Families and friends need to reunite,” she said. “Our businesses need skills to grow. Exporters need to travel to make new connections. It’s time to move again.”
Starting just before midnight Feb. 27, New Zealanders and other eligible travelers who have received at least two doses of a vaccine against COVID-19 will be able to travel home from Australia. On March 13, the border will reopen to vaccinated citizens arriving from elsewhere in the world.
Vaccinated New Zealanders will still be required to isolate at home, with the length of their isolation determined by the country’s “close contact” policy at the time of their arrival. New Zealanders who are not vaccinated must still spend time in quarantine, and the government is evaluating facilities designed for that purpose.
Noncitizens will also be able to return in phases starting in March, beginning with essential workers and skilled workers earning at least 1.5 times the median wage, as well as the family members of highly skilled workers already in the country. In April, the border will reopen to up to 5,000 international students and temporary visa holders.
Then in July, Australians and all other travelers who can normally enter the country without a visa, including tourists from the European Union and the United States, will be able to come to New Zealand. Finally, travelers who require a visa will be allowed to enter the country in October, Ardern said.
She said the July date for letting in travelers with visas was “the latest we expect this to begin.”
“There is a high likelihood of this date coming forward as we progress through the next stage of the pandemic,” she said.
New Zealand closed its borders in March 2020, imposing a strict hotel quarantine requirement for citizens. After October 2020, however, it began to limit the number of people who could enter the country’s hotel quarantine, creating intense bottlenecks among the throngs of New Zealanders desperate to return home.
A staged plan to reopen was outlined late last year but was deferred after the more contagious omicron variant caused cases to soar around the world.
The country’s border policies were in the global spotlight this week after Charlotte Bellis, a former journalist for Al-Jazeera based in Kabul, Afghanistan, spoke publicly about her difficulty securing a spot in New Zealand’s hotel quarantine in order to return to the country to give birth. The government faces legal challenges to its border policies from a group of expatriate New Zealanders called Grounded Kiwis.
At the news conference, Ardern defended the hotel quarantine system, known as MIQ, even as she acknowledged that the closures had been difficult for many people. “The anguish of MIQ has been real, and heartbreaking. But the choice to use it undeniably saved lives,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.