By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand said on Thursday it would ease coronavirus border restrictions that have been in place since March 2020, and move to a system of home isolation for fully vaccinated overseas arrivals from early next year.
The country was the among the first to shut down its borders in response to the pandemic last year, and has retained these tough border restrictions - leaving many expatriate citizens and residents stranded for months.
The government said fully vaccinated overseas travellers will spend only seven days in state quarantine facilities from Nov. 14, half of the current requirement.
Home isolation will also be introduced in the first quarter of 2022, New Zealand's COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said at a news conference.
"We are very aware of pressure building at the borders as the world begins to reconnect," Hipkins said at the news conference.
One-way quarantine free travel will open to smaller Pacific nations like Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu from Nov. 8, he said.
Once a poster child for stamping out COVID-19, New Zealand has been unable to quash the current Delta outbreak, forcing it to abandon an elimination strategy and switch to living with the virus.
Still, it has fared far better than many comparable countries, as the tough curbs have helped limit COVID-19 cases to around 5,900 cases in total and just 28 deaths.
But the travel curbs angered many, the latest to join the chorus being Olympic sailing gold medalist and five-time America's Cup winner Russell Coutts.
He said full stadiums at events like the English Premier League and Europe's Champions League in football, as well as the Ryder Cup golf tournament, were proof that people overseas are living with COVID-19.
"Although some people, perhaps many, rightly remain cautious, life has largely returned to normal in many places. But that is not what we are being told here in New Zealand," Coutts said in a Facebook post.
"The erosion of our freedom of choice, freedom of speech and the loss of precious time with family and friends and all the other negative aspects of a lockdown should be balanced against the health risk of COVID," he added.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week New Zealand will end its strict lockdown measures when 90% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated. About 72% of those eligible have been fully vaccinated so far, while nearly 87% have received a first dose.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Richard Pullin and Kenneth Maxwell)