Prime Minister Jacinda Arden on Monday announced that the government was abandoning its ambitious zero-Covid strategy, even as a spike in cases was reported due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Instead, the government would focus on bolstering the vaccination process and phasing out restrictions, she said.
The Pacific island nation reported 29 new cases of the virus on Thursday, bringing the total in the latest outbreak to 1,448.
“Basically I think ... all New Zealanders should plan to encounter this virus in the next couple of months and act accordingly, and the number one thing of course is to get vaccinated,” top epidemiologist and university of Otago professor Michael Baker told the Morning Report, a news show on the RNZ National channel.
On Thursday, the government urged citizens to reduce their time between vaccine doses to three weeks instead of the previously recommended six weeks.
So far, 51 per cent of the population over the age of 12 have been completely vaccinated, with 80 per cent of the eligible population receiving the first dose, according to data from the country’s health ministry.
The country was affected by a slow vaccine rollout because of procurement difficulties, although it has picked up pace in recent weeks.
“It's clear that a long period of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases. But it is okay. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccinations. Now we do. So we can begin to change the way we do things,” Ms Arden had said on Monday.
Supporting the decision to reduce the gap between vaccinations, Dr Baker said, “we know that means having two doses plus another two weeks after that to get fully protected.”
“For example, if you have your first dose next week, you’d get your second dose three weeks after that at the start of November, and you’d be fully protected by mid-November, so I think that’s really what people should plan to do, and the trouble is, if you have a six-week gap between your two doses, that really pushes that protection right into December,” he explained.
In the country’s biggest inoculation drive, the New Zealand government hopes to vaccinate as many as 350,000 people in a single day next week.
Vaccination clinics will remain open all day on 16 October, announced Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday.
The day, which the government has called “Super Saturday”, aims to inoculate 8.3 per cent of the eligible population.
“Like on election day, we will be asking all of our civic and political leaders to contribute to our efforts to turn people out,” Mr Hipkins said.
Despite the Delta variant ravaging the country, the strict lockdown, affecting 1.7 million people in the biggest city Auckland, was scaled back in phases from Wednesday.
People in the city were allowed to step out of their homes and meet others, with a limit of 10 people in one group. Beaches and parks will be made accessible to the public as well.
New Zealand has been one of the very few countries to prevent a large-scale outbreak of the virus through the zero-tolerance approach. The country of five million people declared itself Covid-free and went back to regular life in June 2020, when most countries were still under lockdown.
However, things changed when the Delta variant of the virus, which originated in India, was brought in by a traveller returning from Australia in August. The nation recorded its 28th death since the onset of the pandemic on Wednesday.
The government had earlier announced on Sunday that all foreign nationals entering New Zealand will be required to be fully vaccinated from 1 November.
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