The dismantling of New Zealand’s hard border will begin early next year, with Kiwis in Australia the first to skip quarantine.
From January 17, fully vaccinated New Zealanders in Australia will be able to return home if they self-isolate for a week.
New Zealanders in other countries will be able to follow suit from February 14, and non-Kiwis can visit from April 30.
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COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said vaccination rates meant “the time is right to carefully start the reopening of our borders”.
“This is about opening the borders in a progressive and safe way,” he said.
“It’s very encouraging that as a country we are now in a position to move towards greater normality.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she resisted a push to open the border to overseas-based Kiwis this year in order to enable New Zealanders to “have the Christmas they deserve”.
“We need to make sure we move cautiously,” she said.
Mr Hipkins said the first two dates were “locked in” and people should make plans, though some ambiguity remained around the April 30 date, and the government would act on public health advice.
The changes are the most significant since the government closed its borders in March 2020.
The decision calls time on New Zealand’s much-loathed quarantine regime, known as managed isolation and quarantine, or MIQ.
Currently, all entrants to New Zealand must win a place in MIQ through a ballot, with limited compassionate or economic exemptions.
Arrivals must then pay to spend time in a quarantine hotel.
More than 190,000 people have gone through MIQ, but those who have missed out have been locked out of their own country.
The decision to delay the reopening to January will see many trans-Tasman families kept apart over Christmas
Mr Hipkins acknowledged the suffering, but said the system was crucial in minimising the impact of coronavirus in New Zealand.
“When it comes to COVID-19, there are often no easy decisions,” he said.
“We’ve often been faced with the task of making the least worst decision … the border is clearly an example of that.”
The changes also spell the end of the trans-Tasman bubble, a three-month quarantine-free travel exemption between COVID-free regions of Australia and New Zealand between April and July this year.
“The bubble doesn’t exist any more … the bubble was a construct that was established when there was no COVID-19 in New Zealand or Australia. And that is no longer the case on either side of the Tasman,” he said.
The announcement does not come with exemptions for sports teams, meaning trans- Tasman sporting competitions which were banking on freer movement in 2022 must re-draw their fixtures.
It also means the 2022 Cricket World Cup, to be hosted by New Zealand in March and April, is likely to be played without foreign fans.
Further details on self-isolation will be released next month, but travellers will still be subject to a range of conditions.
They must have a negative pre-departure test, proof of vaccination, complete a travel declaration, take a test on arrival, have a suitable self-isolation venue and undergo another test before entering the community.
On Wednesday, health officials announced another 215 community cases of COVID-19, including 181 in Auckland.
There are 87 Kiwis in hospital, including eight in intensive care.