New Zealand on Thursday unveiled plans to tentatively reopen its borders for citizens in 2022 but made no mention of foreigners being allowed in.
Jacinda Arden's government have unveiled plans to slash hotel quarantine in half from 14 to seven days in November and eventually replace it with home isolation amid growing pressure from Kiwis stranded overseas.
'We are also very aware of the pressure that's been building at the border as the world begins to reconnect, and the increasing numbers of New Zealanders here and abroad who want to connect with their loved ones,' Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said.
Local media regularly carry reports of Kiwis unable to visit dying relatives or facing family crises because of the quarantine requirements and several people have attempted to sail back to New Zealand from Australia across the notoriously perilous Tasman sea.
The plan has sparked fury among the opposition who blasted the move the 'bare minimum' and warned 'we can't remain shut behind the walls of Fortress New Zealand'.
Opposition Covid spokesman Chris Bishop said 'it's time we reopened to the world' and that fully vaccinated arrivals from low-risk countries should not have to isolate.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said arrivals from a handful of tiny Pacific island states would be granted quarantine-free travel from next month and other low-risk countries would be considered early next year
Former NZ Prime Minister Sir John Key in September said New Zealand had become 'a smug hermit kingdom' and travel restrictions should be lifted as priority.
New Zealand has recorded just 28 Covid-19 deaths in a population of five million and its residents have enjoyed near-normal domestic life for most of the pandemic.
But border facilities have become increasingly stretched, with tens of thousands of overseas-based New Zealanders clamouring online to book the 4,000 available quarantine rooms.
Some New Zealanders stranded in Australia have attempted to cross the Tasman Sea - a notoriously dangerous journey - in small boats in a desperate bid to return home.
Boats full of people willing to risk severe seasickness and the perilous journey have set sail from Australia in recent weeks after trying in vain to secure a quarantine hotel room.
Hipkins said the changes would free up more rooms and the goal was to move towards home isolation in the first three months of 2022.
Mr Hipkins said the changes would free up about 1500 places, but 'many will be used for community cases' in NZ's worsening Delta outbreak.
There were 89 community cases identified by health officials on Thursday, including two in Christchurch, ending a 358-day run without the virus for the South Island's biggest city.
The New Zealand government has opted against sending the city into lockdown, with Mr Hipkins saying there were 'no major exposure events'.
'Close contacts have been identified and are self-isolating ... we'll continue to closely monitor the situation,' he said.
The border previously acted as the bulwark of New Zealand's virus response but a Delta-variant outbreak in Auckland and new cases are now emerging in the community.
He said no decision had yet been made on whether the home-isolation regime would apply only to returning New Zealanders or also include foreign travellers.
'We don't want to accelerate the spread of Covid-19 outside Auckland by prematurely making changes to the international border.
'Once we get those high rates of vaccination, at that point, you'll start to see quite a bit more change at the border,' he said.
Hipkins tied more movement to when NZ hits 90 per cent of eligible Kiwis being fully vaccinated.
As of Thursday, 72 per cent of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated and 87 per cent have received their first jab.
Australians hoping to travel quarantine-free by Christmas haven't been offered any guarantees by the New Zealand government yet (pictured: a passenger on a Trans-Tasman flight in April 2021)
Hipkins also announced arrivals from a handful of tiny Pacific island states would be granted quarantine-free travel from next month and other low-risk countries would be considered early next year.
Arrivals from Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tokelau would be quarantine-free from November 8, mirroring existing arrangements with the Cook Islands and Niue.
He said the border previously acted as the bulwark of New Zealand's virus response but a Delta-variant outbreak in Auckland meant most new cases were now emerging in the community.
He offered no clarification on whether a travel bubble with Australia was likely to reopen.
The bubble opened in April but faced numerous disruptions and was finally suspended in June as multiple outbreaks spread in Australia.
Australians are able to fly to New Zealand but they will need to spend one week in hotel quarantine and another three days in self-isolation at home