AUCKLAND: New Zealanders stranded overseas by the pandemic returned home to tears and hugs yesterday as the country began dismantling some of the world's toughest COVID-related border restrictions. At Auckland airport, relatives carrying signs such as "welcome home my dearest daughter" scooped up loved ones allowed into the country without mandatory hotel quarantine for the first time in almost two years.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the change was cause for celebration, particularly for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders overseas keen to return home. "We can't wait to see you," Ardern told reporters in Wellington. "It's also a huge milestone for our tourism sector and regional economies."

Until now, Kiwi expats entering the country needed to undergo 10 days of isolation in expensive and over-subscribed hotel accommodation. The requirement was dropped for New Zealanders arriving from Australia yesterday and will be extended to all expatriates on Friday. Ardern said the arrivals will not have to self-isolate, as originally planned. She also said the government was planning to speed up the staged reopening of the border to all travelers, although no timetable has yet been set.

Ardern said the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the community meant the impact of cases at the border was less pronounced, allowing restrictions to be removed earlier. "Every time we have seen a significant change in the pandemic, we're moving very rapidly to safely adjust what we do," she said.

Strict border controls were a key part of New Zealand's success containing the coronavirus, with only 56 deaths recorded in a population of five million. But the Omicron outbreak has surged in recent weeks, with 14,657 new cases reported yesterday, and Ardern said the country's high vaccination rate of about 95 percent "provides a strong blanket of protection".-AFP