WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand is to begin allowing small numbers of vaccinated travellers to isolate at home instead of in state-run quarantine facilities as part of a phased approach to re-opening its borders, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
The pilot project starting next month will be open to 150 people, who must be New Zealand citizens or residents and are fully vaccinated, Ardern said at a news conference.
"While this is a pilot, it gives you a sense of where we intend to go on our borders," Ardern said, adding that the government was working on a wide range of options for allowing people back in safely.
"We're working on building a greater evidence base for a shorter periods of isolation in the future as well," she said.
Currently, returning New Zealanders and residents have to stay at a state quarantine facility for at least 14 days. But the facilities have limited capacity and expatriate Kiwis have complained that are always booked up.
In an opinion piece over the weekend, former Prime Minister John Key criticised the government's COVID-19 response strategy saying it was based on fear, questioned the slow vaccination rates, and said New Zealand should no longer exist as "a smug hermit kingdom".
Key, who was prime minister from 2008 to 2016, said vaccination was the only way to get back to normality. Ardern denied using fear as a strategy.
New Zealand eliminated COVID-19 last year and remained largely virus-free until an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant in August led to a nationwide lockdown.
Its biggest city, Auckland, is still in lockdown and new cases are being reported every day. Ardern said at least 90% of its eligible population needed to be vaccinated before the tough lockdown measures can be dropped.
About 43% of eligible people are now fully vaccinated.
Authorities reported 12 new coronavirus cases on Monday, all in Auckland, taking the total number of cases in this outbreak to 1,177.
When asked if she envisaged people having a "classic Kiwi summer" this year, which begins in December, Ardern said: "There are some things we might have to do to make sure that can happen."
"But yes, I can see us experiencing that. We did last summer and I hope we will be able to again."
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robert Birsel)