New Zealand's borders may stay shut for most of the year, PM Ardern says

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses her supporters at a Labour Party event in Wellington

(Reuters) - New Zealand's borders will remain closed for most of this year as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, but the country will pursue travel arrangements with neighbouring Australia and other Pacific nations, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday.

Medical authorities, meanwhile, may approve a COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week, Ardern said, as pressure mounts for a start to vaccinations after the country confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus in the community in months.

"Given the risks in the world around us and the uncertainty of the global rollout of the vaccine, we can expect our borders to be impacted for much of this year," Ardern said at a news conference.

For travel to restart, authorities either needed confidence that those vaccinated don't pass COVID-19 on to others, which is not yet known, or enough of the population needed to be vaccinated so people can safely re-enter New Zealand.

But both possibilities will take some time, she said.

"In the meantime, 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 the risk at this stage."

The recent community case, in a woman who returned to New Zealand on Dec. 30 and had tested positive for the South African strain of the virus after leaving a two-week mandatory quarantine, led Australia to immediately suspend a travel bubble with New Zealand for 72 hours.

Ardern said the country's medicines regulator Medsafe was working towards granting provisional approval for the Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE vaccine.

The first vaccines are due to arrive in New Zealand by the end of the first quarter, but the government wanted everything is in place in case of an earlier arrival.

A tough lockdown and geographical isolation helped the country of 5 million virtually eliminate the novel coronavirus within its borders.

New Zealand reported 2 new cases of COVID-19 at its managed isolation facilities on Tuesday and no new community cases. The country has 65 active cases, 1,934 confirmed cases in all, and 25 deaths.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; editing by Richard Pullin)