Auckland will come out of a three-and-a-half-month lockdown on December 3 as the country gives up on wiping out the Delta variant and instead starts to live with the coronavirus.
But with no sign of when quarantine-free travel would be resuming with Australia, Air New Zealand on Monday afternoon announced the cancellation of more than 1000 flights.
The flights between now and December 31 are the latest to be scrapped since New Zealand suspended the so-called travel bubble in July amid Delta outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria.
“This will be particularly tough news for families and friends who were hoping to catch up over Christmas…. But our hands are tied until border restrictions ease, and we receive further clarity from the New Zealand Government,” Air New Zealand chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty said, in a statement.
Currently, fully vaccinated travellers can fly from New Zealand to Australia without going through quarantine by presenting a negative PCR test.
But Australians need to apply for an exemption to enter New Zealand and with only a few exceptions all arrivals, including citizens, need to spend two weeks in quarantine.
New Zealand tries new virus tack
From 11.59pm on December 2, New Zealand will bring in a new traffic-light system that will block unvaccinated residents from venues such as bars, gyms and restaurants.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the system was simpler and would allow businesses to stay open at each level.
“While no country to date has been able to eliminate Delta completely once it’s arrived, New Zealand is better positioned than most to tackle it,” Ms Ardern said.
Auckland would open up under red-level restrictions, with status of the rest of the country to be determined by vaccination rates.
“The number one thing every New Zealander can do to prepare for the new system is to get vaccinated,” she said.
“If you’re due your second shot, get it as soon as possible.
“Vaccine passes will operate in the traffic light system and if you aren’t fully vaccinated, you’ll find you’re unable to access a range of places like bars, gyms and restaurants.”
The country will fall short of an ambitious target Ms Ardern last month set of getting 90 per cent of all eligible people across each of 20 health districts fully vaccinated before moving to the new system.
The traffic-light system is designed to indicate where outbreaks are putting pressure on the health system. A green designation would impose few restrictions, orange would require more mask wearing and distancing, while red would limit gathering sizes even with vaccination certificates.
She wanted to avoid lifting and then re-imposing restrictions and said the government would be “careful and deliberate” around border decisions to avoid uncertainty.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the risk from even fully vaccinated arrivals — especially in high volume — was “not trivial”.
“If you can imagine in our situation, people travelling in and if they were if they were self isolating even, in different parts of the country, and there were cases there, and each one of those is in fact seeding another little outbreak, which is different from our current situation,” Dr Bloomfield said.
“We have most of our cases, of course, well, they’re all coming from known cases and most of those — many of those, we can still epidemiologically link.”
The pause on quarantine-free flights from Australia was last extended in September.