Bars, restaurants and gyms can reopen in Auckland from early December but customers will be required to show proof they have been fully vaccinated, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
The announcement removes the last remnants of a lockdown that began in the country’s largest city in August.
It also signals a new phase in New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, in which people around the country will need to be fully vaccinated in order to take part in anything from getting a haircut to watching a concert.
Ms Ardern said New Zealand would move into a new pandemic “traffic light” system based around the use of vaccine passports from December 2.
The system will mark an end to the lockdowns which New Zealand used effectively to completely eliminate virus outbreaks during the first 18 months of the pandemic, but which failed to extinguish an August outbreak of the more contagious delta variant.
Ms Ardern last month set an ambitious target of getting 90% of all eligible people across each of 20 health districts fully vaccinated before moving to the new system.
But although the vaccination rates will fall short of that target by early December, she said it is time to make the move anyway.
Currently about 83% of New Zealanders aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated, but the rate in some health districts is as low as 73%.
The government has faced increasingly belligerent protests against vaccination requirements and pandemic restrictions.
Opinion polls show support for Ms 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 stabilised, with about 200 new infections reported each day, most of them in Auckland.
About 85 New Zealanders are currently in hospital with Covid, and the country has reported just 40 virus deaths from a population of five million since the pandemic began.
“The hard truth is that delta is here and it is not going away,” Ms 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.”