New Zealand to shed COVID-19 restrictions

The border is opening and New Zealand is shaking up its domestic COVID-19 restrictions, hopeful its deadly Omicron wave is passing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says her cabinet is on Monday reviewing mandates, vaccine pass and traffic light systems, with changes to be announced on Wednesday.

Restrictions are proving increasingly unpopular in New Zealand, which has persisted with gathering caps, indoor spacing requirements and mask mandates among other rules.

Government-issued employment mandates, which affected Kiwis employed in health, aged care, education, defence sectors, as well as the police, are to be severely curtailed.

Ms Ardern also foreshadowed a lessening of reliance on vaccine passes, which restrict the places that unvaccinated Kiwis can visit, including non-essential businesses.

“Things like vaccine passes, with a highly vaccinated population … aren’t as critical as they once were for us,” she told TVNZ.

“They’re looking to change those up, and also change up the way we use mandates as well.

“Once you’ve got a first big wave that’s come through, it does mean a number of people who have not been vaccinated have now had COVID. It changes up the equation.”

The changes come as the country suffers through its worst outbreak and loss of lives of the pandemic.

Community transmission of the highly contagious Omicron variant was first detected on January 23, leading to huge spikes in cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

Prior to the Omicron outbreak, NZ had not recorded more than 100 people in hospital with the virus at any one time.

That figure has sat above 900 for a week, with a record 26 people currently in intensive care.

This month, more Kiwis have died with the virus than the rest of the pandemic combined.

However, the deaths are in contrast to the experience of the vast majority of Kiwis who catch it. Most endure mild symptoms, and their biggest complaint is being ordered to isolate with their household for a week.

Given the Kiwi experience, many – including the opposition National and ACT parties – believe the time is right to attempt lighter-touch rules.

Ms Ardern has signalled mask mandates are likely to stay.

The changes come on top of the border changes, as NZ dismantles its quarantine regime.

Kiwis are now allowed to return home without a mandatory stay in quarantine, and within weeks so too will Australian travellers and those further abroad.

Ms Ardern said government modelling suggested the additional caseload travellers would bring would be “manageable”.

“Kiwis can feel assured we’re making careful decisions,” she said.


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