New Zealand Ending Last COVID Lockdown Measures Despite Falling Short of Vaccine Goal

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Monday that Auckland's COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted and the country would transition to a new "traffic light" system based around vaccine passports, despite not meeting their initial vaccination goal, the Associated Press reported.

While the country avoided outbreaks during the first 18 months of the pandemic, a Delta variant outbreak in August broke that streak. The announcement will remove the last of the lockdown measures implemented in New Zealand's largest city as a response to the variant.

The traffic light system will give color designations to areas to show what kinds of restrictions are needed to control their outbreaks. Green requires few restrictions, yellow requires mask wearing and distancing, and red requires limiting gatherings, even with proof of vaccination. Also, in order to enter public spaces like restaurants and concert venues, New Zealanders will need to show proof of vaccination.

AP reported that Ardern set a target last month to get 90 percent of all eligible people across the country's 20 health districts fully vaccinated before moving the new system. Currently, about 83 percent of New Zealanders ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated, though in some health districts the amount falls as low as 73 percent.

"The hard truth is that Delta is here and it is not going away," Ardern said. "And while no country to date has been able to eliminate Delta completely once it's arrived, New Zealand is in a better position than most to tackle it."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand
Bars, restaurants and gyms can reopen in Auckland from early December, but customers will be required to show proof they've been fully vaccinated, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday. Above, Ardern addresses a post-Cabinet press conference at Parliament in Wellington on November 22, 2021. Mark Mitchell/Pool Photo via AP

The government has faced increasingly belligerent protests against vaccination requirements and pandemic restrictions. And opinion polls show support for Ardern and her liberal government has slipped since they won a landslide election victory just over a year ago, although they remain more popular than their conservative opponents.

The current outbreak appears to have stabilized somewhat with about 200 new infections reported each day, most of them in Auckland. About 85 New Zealanders are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and the nation has reported just 40 virus deaths from a population of 5 million since the pandemic began.

Opposition lawmaker David Seymour, who leads the libertarian ACT Party, said the government should have reopened sooner but had been delaying in order to get its vaccine passport system operational.

Ardern had previously announced that a border around Auckland which has stopped most people from leaving the city will be removed on December 15, allowing Aucklanders to travel over the Christmas holiday period but raising fears among some health experts that it will cause the virus to spread more rapidly throughout the country.

Auckland, New Zealand, COVID lockdown
Auckland is the first District Health Board in New Zealand to have 90 percent of the eligible population receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Above, a man walks past shops on Queen Street on November 22, 2021, in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images