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New Zealand launched its COVID-19 vaccination program on Saturday but warned that the initial roll-out was just a small step in the long battle against the pandemic.

The Pacific nation has received widespread praise for its handling of the coronavirus, recording just 26 deaths out of a population of five million.

The vaccination campaign begins just days after authorities lifted a coronavirus lockdown in Auckland that locked most of the city’s residents in their homes for three days.

“It’s the beginning of a new chapter, but we still have a long way to go,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the country’s director general for health.

The rollout was a “small but important step in a long way,” he added, with an initial focus on high-risk citizens and citizens returning from overseas as well as border and quarantine workers.

Trans-Tasman-neighbor Australia will begin a similar rollout of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccines for frontline employees starting Monday.

Both nations have closed the borders to almost all international travelers, seriously hurting the tourism industry, which is an important pillar of the economy.

Despite the vaccination program, the New Zealand government has said it is unlikely that foreign tourists will be allowed to return this year.

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© 2021 AFP

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