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New Zealand said Wednesday it will not reopen to foreign travellers for at least another five months, as it slowly relaxes some of the world's toughest pandemic border restrictions.
The Pacific nation's Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealanders stranded in Australia could return home from mid-January and Kiwis travelling from elsewhere would be allowed in a month later.
But foreign nationals must wait until the end of April under the blueprint for a phased reopening unveiled Wednesday.
"We acknowledge it's been tough, but the end of heavily restricted travel is now in sight," Hipkins told reporters.
New Zealand closed its borders in March last year, requiring all international arrivals to undergo two weeks of hotel quarantine, a period that was recently cut to seven days.
Hipkins said under the new regime, travellers would self isolate for seven days provided they were fully vaccinated and passed a series of Covid-19 tests.
The move comes amid mounting pressure from overseas-based New Zealanders frustrated at being unable to book spots in the overstretched hotel quarantine system.
Local media regularly carry reports of Kiwis unable to return home to see visit dying relatives because there are no available quarantine rooms.
The border announcement comes as New Zealand prepares to revamp its domestic Covid-19 response to scrap lockdowns in recognition that the highly contagious Delta variant is now firmly embedded in the community.
Its previous strategy of eliminating the virus completely has resulted in just 40 deaths in a population of five million but officials have admitted Delta means the goal is no longer achievable.
Hipkins acknowledged many New Zealanders wanted the border open for Christmas but said it was not a realistic expectation.
"There continues to be a global pandemic, with case numbers surging in Europe and other parts of the world," he said.
"So we need to be careful about reopening our border, that's what we're doing and what we've always done."
Hipkins said from next month India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Fiji and Brazil would no longer be classified as very-high risk countries, making their nationals eligible to travel to New Zealand from April 30.
He said there was a possibility "bespoke" arrangements would allow international students and Australians to travel before April 30 but could offer no guarantees.