So far, 2021 has been the "hardest year" of Covid, the Prime Minister says, but on Thursday she will give the first inklings of the rewards New Zealanders can expect as vaccination numbers rise.
In an extended interview with the Weekend Herald, Ardern spoke about the next six months, the plan to deal with Delta, and whether she would set a vaccinations target as other countries have done.
One thing Ardern ruled out was a vaccination pass within New Zealand – a system in which vaccinated people would have more freedoms, such as access to restaurants and concerts, while unvaccinated people would not.
Australia is looking at giving vaccinated people greater freedoms than unvaccinated people once it hits 70 per cent threshold of vaccinations. It is also a measure being taken in France to allow vaccinated people a return to normal life without a new surge in Covid-19 cases. It is also expected to work as a way to get the hold-outs to go for vaccinations.
However, Ardern said she was not comfortable with such a step here even after the borders re-opened and there was more risk of Covid.
"My hope is we have as many vaccinated individuals as possible and that we continue to move freely but people wouldn't consider it freedom of movement if you're only able to go and partake in activities if you're vaccinated. That's a very different style of approach."
Ardern said she would prefer to address that risk at the border, rather than inside the country.
"Are there things you can do at the border to reduce this idea that there is an inevitability we will have people coming in with Covid? There are layers of protection we can bring in at the border to reduce that risk. These are the things we've asked the experts about."
She is looking at measures being taken in countries such as Iceland and Canada, which is allowing vaccinated people to travel across the border without quarantine. Those travellers are being tested and Ardern was watching the testing closely. "That gives us a good insight into just what's happening with transmission amongst vaccinated individuals.
"We have to think about what we might do in the future, based on things that would work for us."
The Covid Omnium, from the sprint of 2020 to the marathon of 2021
After getting a majority in the 2020 election for its Covid-19 handling, Labour has taken a bit of a buffeting in recent polls. The party dropped below the level at which it would be able to govern alone in both Colmar Brunton and Newshub Reid Research polls. The latter showed its support had dropped by almost 10 points to 43 per cent.
Ardern's response to the drop was to say while most had thought 2020 would be the hard year, 2021 was turning out to be harder.
"In 2020, everyone knew we just had to knuckle down and get through this new extraordinary thing that was suddenly upon us. Someone described it to me as a bit of sprint in some ways.
"We got through that, and I think over summer there was a sense of relief that we'd got through the year, but now we are in 2021 and we are still running. We are now in this marathon."
"People just want to know when it's going to feel normal again, and I totally understand that."
It is, however, a question she can't answer just now.
"We continue to be in an uncertain environment and we just don't know what Covid will do next.
"But I do see light at the end of the tunnel."
The next six months
Ardern will unveil more of her thinking on Thursday, along with a report on Reconnecting to the World, prepared by the Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group chaired by David Skegg.
Ardern is keen not to overstate what she will outline on Thursday, saying it will mainly focus on the next six months.
"[The vaccines uptake] is what gives us the options. But once we have them, what does that enable us to do in the new year, and what do we need to do between now and then to prepare?"
Other countries, including Australia, have set out plans to open the borders with testing and vaccination requirements. In Australia, the border restrictions will ease and lockdowns will reduce once 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated, and further easing will come when it hits 80 per cent.
However, Ardern is reluctant to specify a threshold of vaccinations at which she considers it would be safe to start opening up.
Ardern said she was concerned that setting a target would mean people would decide they could leave it to others to get to the threshold.
"Ultimately we need as many people as possible to be vaccinated."
Cabinet is also yet to decide whether or not to allow teenagers to get vaccinated after Medsafe gave approval for teenagers to be vaccinated with the Pfizer jab.
Ardern said that was expected soon, but there was no real urgency given that young people would be at the end of the queue. However, she said it would help boost the overall vaccination rate.
And getting back some form of normality will rely on high vaccination rates.
It would reduce the need to use hard lockdowns, and Ardern said that was one of the most disruptive elements in Covid-19.
It would also allow a move on the border. Ardern said it was likely extra health requirements would apply at the borders for a long time to come, as happened with extra security measures after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York.
Those changes would soon seem normal – the challenge was in making them as streamlined as possible.
Dealing with Delta: Is a new mega-level in the works?
Until then, the danger from variants such as Delta will keep the borders closed – and lockdowns a risk.
Other countries with good records at keeping Covid-19 at bay, including Australia, are now struggling with outbreaks of Delta and there are concerns it will eventually hit New Zealand.
There have also suggestions that the levels system could need to be tougher to deal with it.
Ardern said she did not believe a level 4+ would be required to deal with an outbreak of the Delta virus in New Zealand, saying level 4 was already very restrictive.
"It is already your souped-up alert level. It was always at the more stringent end."
However, she warned if Delta does arrive, New Zealanders should expect the Government to move at pace in lifting levels.
"You would expect us to take a really quick approach with Delta. Our approach, by and large, is the right one. You move quickly because that gives us more options."
Asked if it was worth re-opening the Australian bubble before the vaccination rollout was further along given that risk, Ardern said the Government would re-assess in late September. At the moment it would depend on how contained it was in Australia.
"There's a lot of water to go under the bridge before we see where Australia ends up, but if you don't open at that point, we both keep rolling along in our vaccines. You would factor that in presumably. But we are just not there to make that decision yet."
Vaccinations post 2021: Is there a plan for the boosters roll-out?
The first of those who got vaccinated will need annual boosters almost as soon as the first rollout comes to its end. Ardern said planning was still underway for the ongoing rollout of booster shots in the years ahead.
"We fully expect Covid to be something we vaccinate for annually, so we are building that into our thinking and our preparation now."
Unlike the flu vaccine, she expected Covid boosters would remain government-funded "for the foreseeable future".
"We just have to remove every barrier possible to enable New Zealanders to take up the vaccine."
She said it would eventually be integrated into the health system in the same way as the flu vaccine.
The difference was that there was more need for people to get a Covid-19 vaccine than a flu jab.
However, she indicated it was not a done deal that New Zealand would stick with Pfizer throughout.
She said she did not yet know how much the booster shots programme were likely to cost on an annual basis, saying it would depend on negotiations with vaccines companies.
The administration costs would also vary, depending on how "fragile" the vaccine being used was.