WELLINGTON – New Zealand's government on Friday set an ambitious target of fully vaccinating 90% of all eligible people to end coronavirus lockdowns.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been under pressure to provide a pathway to freedom for people living in Auckland, who have been in lockdown for more than two months.
Under the new framework, people living in the largest city will regain many of their freedoms once 90% of people 12 and older across each of three districts are fully vaccinated.
Other parts of the country without community spread of the virus will gain even broader freedoms once they hit the 90% target. However, people will be required to use new vaccine certificates to visit places like bars, restaurants and gyms.
The government also promised more money to help businesses struggling under the lockdown restrictions and to boost vaccinations among Indigenous Maori, whose rates have been lagging.
New Zealand's vaccination target is set higher than in many other countries, but Ardern said Auckland could reach it within weeks.
However, as vaccination rates have risen, health officials have found it increasingly difficult to convince remaining holdouts to get jabbed.
Currently 89% of eligible Aucklanders have had at least one dose and 73% have had both doses, a rate slightly ahead of the national average.
The new plan requires each of 20 health districts in New Zealand to reach the 90% target.
Ardern didn't directly address what would happen if some places fell short of the goal, although indicated there could be some flexibility if they were close.
But Opposition Leader Judith Collins said the targets would be hard to achieve and that lockdowns could last for months. Collins is advocating to fully reopen New Zealand by Dec. 1 at the latest.
New Zealand has so far avoided the worst of the pandemic after managing to completely extinguish all previous outbreaks through strict lockdowns, aggressive contact tracing and tight border controls.
But an outbreak of the more contagious delta variant in August has proved more problematic and has continued to grow in Auckland despite the lockdown measures.
Ardern said the emergence of the delta variant had forced her government to rethink its previous elimination strategy and focus on vaccines.
“My message to the New Zealanders who have not yet had their first dose: If you want summer, if you want to go to bars and restaurants, get vaccinated,” Ardern said. “If you want to get a haircut, get vaccinated. If you want to go to a concert, or a festival, get vaccinated."
Ardern said New Zealand would switch from alert levels to a traffic-light system to indicate whether outbreaks were worsening and putting pressure on the health system. A green designation would allow most business to continue as usual, orange would require more mask wearing and distancing, while red would limit gathering sizes even with vaccination certificates.