Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand acknowledged an end on Monday to the country’s strategy of eliminating the coronavirus, announcing that restrictions would be gradually lifted in Auckland, the country’s largest city.
Ms. Ardern’s announcement — which came seven weeks into a lockdown that has failed to halt an outbreak of the Delta variant — signaled an end to the “Covid zero” strategy New Zealand has pursued for a year and a half, closing its borders and quickly enforcing lockdowns to keep the coronavirus in check.
The nation maintained that goal even as other Asia-Pacific countries transitioned to coexisting with the viral threat. On Monday, Ms. Ardern said the country would switch to “a new way of doing things.”
“With Delta, the return to zero is incredibly difficult, and our restrictions alone are not enough to achieve that quickly,” Ms. Ardern told reporters. “In fact, for this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases.”
“What we have called a long tail,” she added, “feels more like a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake.”
Overall, New Zealand’s approach to the virus has been a spectacular success, giving it one of the lowest rates of cases and deaths in the world, and allowing its people to live without restrictions during most of the pandemic. But the transmissibility of the Delta variant has challenged the old playbook and made lockdowns ineffective at containing the virus.
New Zealand is still reporting dozens of new cases a day, almost all of them in Auckland, after the latest outbreak began in mid-August.
The mood among many in Auckland has soured as the most recent lockdown has stretched on, with thousands of people breaking a stay-at-home order on Saturday to demonstrate against the restrictions. Vaccinations have also lagged, with fewer than half of people 12 and older having been fully vaccinated, far behind most developed countries.
Ms. Ardern began to acknowledge the discontent two weeks ago, when she announced, after more than a month of a highly restrictive stay-at-home order, that some rules would be relaxed in Auckland even as much of the lockdown order remained in place.
In Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, leaders have said they are abandoning a zero-Covid approach but have kept in place some heavy restrictions. Singapore, too, has shifted to what it calls living with the virus, using metrics like hospitalizations and deaths instead of caseloads to guide its reopening now that it has vaccinated much of its population. China is perhaps the last major country to pursue a Covid-zero approach.
To move away from lockdowns altogether, New Zealand will have to achieve widespread vaccination, Ms. Ardern said. Some 79 percent of people 12 and older have received at least one dose, and 48 percent have received two doses, according to data from the Ministry of Health. Full immunization of the population — New Zealand’s stated aim — could take months.
The country’s most at-risk communities are also its least vaccinated. While more than 95 percent of people of Asian descent and 80 percent of white people have received at least one dose, the figure falls to about 73 percent for Pacific Islanders and less than 57 percent for Maori people.
In a post on Twitter, the Maori writer and political commentator Morgan Godfery expressed concern about what abandoning the elimination strategy might mean for those in disadvantaged communities.
“The PM says we must now live with the virus,” he wrote. “But the ‘we’ means these same lines of inequality. The virus will now burrow in gangs, the transitional housing community, and unvaccinated brown people. In 2020, Jacinda asked for shared sacrifice. In 2021, it’s a particular sacrifice.”