The New Zealand earthquake rescue effort has been declared a matter of recovering bodies, rather than searching for survivors.

Officials have made the declaration nine days after the 6.3-magnitude earthquake shattered Christchurch.

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Christchurch earthquake: death toll rises

The last person pulled alive from the earthquake rubble was on the afternoon of the following day.

“As time has gone on, the chance of finding someone alive has diminished,”  said civil defence national controller John Hamilton.

“Sadly, there becomes a point where the response effort shifts in focus from rescue to body recovery.

“We have now reached that point.”

A total of 161 people have been confirmed dead, although police say the final toll is likely to be about 240.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully told reporters they included up to 100 foreigners from 20 countries, mainly students studying English.

Hamilton said that since the February 22 earthquake, nearly 600 searchers had rescued 70 people alive, but the last was pulled out on February 23.

“We now face the reality that there is no chance that anyone could have survived this long.”

The families of those missing were personally informed of the decision, he said.

Many residents in Christchurch, which is New Zealand’s second largest city, remain without electricity, water or access to toilets.

Although public buses resumed a free service on Thursday, transport is difficult because of the damage done to roads.

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said that people would start to be allowed back into the cordoned-off city centre, where more than 50,000 people usually worked every day, for the first time Friday to collect belongings and abandoned vehicles.

Prime minister John Key announced that one-third of commercial buildings in the centre of the city may have to be demolished and it could remain closed to the public until Christmas. It could 15 years to rebuild the commercial centre, he said.