(CNN) — New Zealand has announced it will begin reopening to the world, signaling an end to nearly two years of tough border rules that have separated families and shut out almost all foreigners.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined a five-step plan Thursday that will allow fully vaccinated New Zealand citizens to start traveling from Australia later this month. They will need to self-isolate on arrival — but they won’t need to go into state-run quarantine facilities.
By July, fully vaccinated people from Australia or visa waiver countries — including the United Kingdom, the United States, and many European nations — will be able to enter New Zealand and self-isolate on arrival, according to the plan.
The government website states that “self-isolation can be in your home or suitable alternative accommodation,” so it’s not yet known whether non-residents will be able to use hotels, rented apartments or other similar accommodations for their own self-isolation purposes.
The announcement is a major shift for New Zealand, which imposed some of the world’s strictest border rules in a bid to shut out Covid-19.
The country banned almost all foreign travelers in March 2020, and requires incoming visitors to spend time in a state-run quarantine facility at their own cost.
To deal with the limited quarantine places, New Zealand brought in a quarantine lottery system which allowed citizens to enter an online queue at designated times in the hopes of scoring spots.
That has meant many New Zealanders have struggled to get home — and some haven’t seen their loved ones for years.
The system has allowed New Zealand to keep Covid-19 numbers low, and just 53 Covid-19 deaths have been reported in the country, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. But Ardern has been under increasing pressure to ease border rules and allow New Zealand to reunite with the world — and to the estimated 1 million New Zealanders living overseas.
Ardern said the anguish of quarantine had been “heartbreaking.”
“But the choice to use it, undeniably saved lives,” she said, adding that the border rules had bought New Zealand time to become “one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.” New Zealand has fully vaccinated 93% of eligible people, according to the Ministry of Health.
“We are in a new phase in our Covid response,” Ardern said. “Covid as an illness hasn’t touched many of us to date. But with the transmissibility of Omicron we know we will experience the virus more directly. But the difference here is that we have all the tools possible now to prepare.”
New Zealand’s shift away from a zero-Covid approach has been signaled for months.
The following month New Zealand announced it would begin a gradual easing of borders in 2022, although those plans were pushed back due to the spread of Omicron.
Foreign nationals will be required to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus in order to enter the country when it reopens.
New Zealand’s move on February 3 comes in the wake of similar steps from neighboring Australia. Like New Zealand, Australia imposed strict border rules to shut out Covid. Fully vaccinated citizens, visa holders and people from certain countries — including New Zealand, Japan and Singapore — are now able to travel to Australia without a travel exemption.