New Zealand’s government may be coming around to the same reality that other countries have since dropping their lockdowns: it is impossible to completely get rid of the coronavirus. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Tuesday plans to ease lockdown restrictions in the nation’s most populous city of Auckland, despite an ongoing outbreak in the area.
Ardern announced the plan just two days after thousands of New Zealanders took to the streets in Auckland to protest the city’s strict lockdown, which has been in effect for seven weeks.
"Today we are facing a Government we thought we could trust,” said New Zealand Christian politician Brian Tamaki, NZ Herald reported. “Instead they are stripping away the freedoms and rights of everyday Kiwis."
Under Ardern’s direction, New Zealand became one of the most highly policed countries amid the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, with a zero-tolerance approach to stopping the spread of the highly infectious disease, which included strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing.
According to the Associated Press, the strategy initially worked to contain the virus from affecting New Zealand’s population of 5 million. New Zealand, which has reported only 27 deaths from the virus, allowed citizens to return to normal while other nations enacted social distancing regulations and a variety of disruptive measures to contain the spread.
But that all changed when the more contagious delta variant somehow escaped from a quarantine facility in August after it was brought into the country from a traveler returning from Australia.
Despite New Zealand going into the strictest form of lockdown after just a single local case was detected, it ultimately wasn’t enough to crush the outbreak entirely.
One factor may have been that the disease spread among some groups that are typically more wary of authorities, including gang members and homeless people living in transitional housing.
Since then, the current outbreak has grown to more than 1,300 cases and continues to rise in Auckland and even outside the city, which has endured seven weeks of strict lockdown restrictions.
“For this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases,” Ardern said. “But that is OK. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.”
Unlike other developed countries, New Zealand’s vaccination program has been slow to roll out. Around 65% of New Zealanders have had a single shot of the vaccine, and 40% are fully vaccinated.
Ardern outlined the plan to end restrictions in Auckland, saying the three-step plan would allow the city to come out of lockdown “safely and carefully” in a matter of weeks.
Under the new plan, which eases lockdowns in Auckland, residents will be able to meet outdoors and go to the beach. Early childhood centres are also expected to reopen. A phased reopening of retail stores, restaurants, and bars has yet to be determined. Ardern says that most of the measures will continue to remain in place, including contact tracing and isolating the infected.
Opposition leader Judith Collins has labelled the plan as “nothing more than a vague wishlist.”
“Jacinda Ardern has no answers to problems that she and her Government promised us were under control. The situation is now, very clearly, out of control and worsening every day,” said Collins.
The Associated Press reports that Ardern’s zero tolerance approach to the pandemic initially received widespread support in the country but has faced increasing resistance.