WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – The New Zealand government set an ambitious goal on Friday to fully immunize 90% of all eligible people to end coronavirus lockdowns.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been pressured to open a path to freedom for people living in Auckland, who have been in detention for more than two months.
Under the new framework, people living in the larger city will regain much of their freedoms once 90% of people 12 and older in each of the three districts are fully immunized.
Other areas of the country without community spread of the virus will be granted even greater freedoms once they reach the 90% target. However, people will be required to use new vaccination certificates to visit places like bars, restaurants and gyms.
The government has also pledged more money to help businesses struggling with the lockdown restrictions and to increase vaccinations among indigenous Maori, whose rates are lagging behind.
New Zealand’s vaccination target is set higher than in many other countries, but Ardern said Auckland could reach it in a matter of weeks.
However, as vaccination rates have increased, health officials are finding it increasingly difficult to convince remaining holdouts to get bitten.
Currently, 89% of eligible Aucklanders have received at least one dose and 73% have received both doses, a rate slightly above the national average.
The new plan requires each of New Zealand’s 20 health districts to meet the 90% target.
Ardern did not directly address what would happen if certain locations did not meet the target, although he did indicate there might be some flexibility if they were close.
But Opposition Leader Judith Collins said the targets would be hard to hit and the lockdowns could last for months. Collins advocates a full reopening of New Zealand by December 1 at the latest.
New Zealand has so far avoided the worst of the pandemic after successfully quitting all previous outbreaks completely through tight lockdowns, aggressive contact tracing and strict border controls.
But an outbreak of the more contagious delta variant in August proved more problematic and continued to grow in Auckland despite lockdown measures.
Ardern said the emergence of the delta variant had forced his government to rethink its previous phase-out strategy and focus on vaccines.
“My message to New Zealanders who have yet to receive their first dose: if you want summer, if you want to go to bars and restaurants, get the shot,” Ardern said. “If you want to have your hair cut, get vaccinated. If you want to go to a concert or a festival, get yourself vaccinated.
Ardern said New Zealand would move from alert levels to a traffic light system to indicate if outbreaks worsen and put pressure on the health system. A green designation would allow most activities to continue as usual, orange would require more mask wear and distancing, while red would limit the size of gatherings even with vaccination certificates.