While New Zealand's success in combating the COVID-19 virus has allowed it to lift restrictions on daily life, its borders may remain closed for most of 2021.

According to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, this is due to uncertainty around the global rollout of vaccines against the virus, as she noted in a press conference. Regulatory approval may be given for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as early as next week, although the first vaccines are due to arrive in the country by the end of the first quarter. Mass immunisation isn't expected to begin until mid-year. Ardern also confirmed that the country will continue to pursue travel bubbles with neighboring Australia and other Pacific nations.

Milford Sound/Piopiotahi fiord in the south west of New Zealand's South Island
New Zealand may stay closed to visitors for the rest of the year © wootthisak nirongboot/Getty Images

While the closed borders are adversely affecting the country's tourism industry, its government feels that opening to the rest of the world poses too great a risk at this stage. “For travel to restart, we need one of two things,” said Ardern. “We need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don’t pass COVID-19 on to others or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand. Both possibilities will take some time.”

Since the pandemic struck, New Zealand has had 1934 confirmed cases of the virus and 25 deaths among its population of five million people, thanks to its strict measures. Australia permitted quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders last year, but suspended it for 72 hours when the first case of COVID-19 in the community in months was revealed. It involved a woman who returned to New Zealand on 30 December, and tested positive for the South African strain of the virus after leaving a two-week mandatory quarantine.

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