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New Zealand is likely to keep its border closed to the world through most of 2021 amid uncertainty over the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

“We can expect our borders to be impacted for much of this year,” Ardern told a news conference Tuesday in Wellington. “We will continue to pursue travel bubbles with Australia and the Pacific, but the rest of the world simply poses too great a risk to our health and our economy to take a risk at this stage.”

New Zealand’s success in combating the virus has allowed it to lift restrictions and get its economy moving again much sooner than initially expected, but the closed border is decimating its tourism industry. While the government today announced it expects to give regulatory approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine next week, Ardern said mass immunization will not begin until midyear and she was taking a “conservative” approach to letting foreigners into the country again.

“For travel to restart we need one of two things,” she said. “We either need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don’t pass COVID-19 on to others — and we don’t know that yet — or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand. Both possibilities will take some time.”

Ardern sounded pessimistic on the possibility of a safe travel zone with Australia any time soon. While talks would continue, “it does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level,” she said, adding “we haven’t ruled out the possibility of state-by-state.”

Australia started allowing quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders last year but suspended that this week when New Zealand reported one case of COVID-19 in the community. Ardern expressed disappointment at Australia’s decision. The case involving a woman who tested positive after leaving managed isolation is “well under control,” she said.

“If we are to enter into a Trans-Tasman bubble, we will need to be able to give people confidence that we won’t see closures at the borders that happen with very short notice over incidents that we believe can be well managed domestically,” she said.

New Zealand aims to begin immunizing workers at its managed isolation facilities this quarter, but Ardern was unable to say when the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will arrive in the country. The vaccine is expected to get to New Zealand around the same time as it gets to Australia, which is slated for mid-to-late February, she said.

“New Zealand will have its house in order so we will be ready to receive, but ultimately we will be in the hands of pharmaceutical companies’ delivery timelines,” Ardern said.

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