By Ben Westcott, Oct. 5 (CNN): New Zealand will begin to move away from a zero-Covid strategy toward living with the virus, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday, becoming the latest country to abandon its elimination attempts in the face of the highly contagious Delta variant.
After shutting its borders early in the pandemic, New Zealand has reported just 4,409 Covid-19 infections and 27 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University -- among the lowest case numbers of any country.
But an outbreak in August, sparked by the Delta strain, plunged the major city of Auckland into a long lockdown. And despite the city enduring more than six weeks of restrictions on movement, New Zealand reported 24 new cases in the community on Tuesday -- the majority found in Auckland.
Ardern admitted Monday the virus was "a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake."
"To date, we've managed to largely control the outbreak, but as you can see with this outbreak and with Delta, the return to zero is incredibly difficult," she said, adding that long periods of tough restrictions had been unable to sufficiently reduce infections.
Ardern said while the transition to living with the virus was always a move New Zealand was going to make, the Delta variant had "accelerated" the change. The New Zealand leader didn't say exactly when the transition from the zero-Covid strategy would begin, but she emphasized the country was "not there yet."
"We need more people fully vaccinated, across more suburbs and more age groups," Ardern said.
At least 49 per cent of the country has been fully vaccinated, while 79 per cent have had their first dose, according to New Zealand's Health Ministry.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Ardern said New Zealanders would require vaccine certificates to access public events such as music festivals and other large gatherings, from as early as next month.
"If you are booked for a summer festival, this is a warning or a heads up, go and get vaccinated," she said.
New Zealand is joining several other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that have recently announced plans to live with the virus.
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in August the country would start easing restrictions once it reached its national vaccination targets of up to 80 per cent. And last week, he announced a roadmap that could see Australia's borders reopen to fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents sometime in November. International arrivals for non-citizens are not expected to resume until next year.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Ardern said she had no regrets about enforcing New Zealand's zero-Covid strategy over the past 18 months because it had saved lives.
"Elimination was important because we didn't have vaccines. Now we do," she said.
Record cases in Australia
New Zealand's announcement comes days before the expected relaxation of tough Covid restrictions in Sydney, Australia's largest city and capital of the state of New South Wales (NSW).
Sydney has been under lockdown for more than three months, but NSW authorities have said that once 70 per cent of the state's population over 16 are double vaccinated, restrictions will lift for those who have had their shots.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said it was likely that the date will be October 11, with additional restrictions to be relaxed once the state hits an 80 per cent double vaccination rate. The state is expected to fully open up on December 1. Covid-19 infections have dropped in NSW ahead of the expected reopening, with 608 confirmed cases reported Monday. But amid the optimism
in Sydney, the neighbouring state of Victoria is experiencing record numbers of new infections.
Victoria, home to Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne, reported 1,763 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday. That's the highest daily number in Australia during the pandemic and brings the total number of cases reported by the state to 44,251. The death toll is 877.
Despite being in lockdown since August 5, Melbourne has struggled to bring the virus under control. Officials said a major sporting event in September led to a new wave of cases after people ignored restrictions to celebrate the occasion.
On Tuesday, Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews said he still intends to ease many restrictions once the state reaches a 70 per cent double vaccination rate, hopefully in late October.
"We want to get to 70 per cent double dose, as quick as we can, then 80 per cent, be open, be free, normalize this," he said.