New Zealand will do away with vaccine passes and vaccine mandates for some of the workforce in early April, in a major loosening of the country’s tough Covid-19 restrictions.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced the changes on Wednesday morning, citing high vaccination rates, better data to identify which environments are high risk, and modelling that suggests the country’s Omicron outbreak would peak in early April.
The country reported 20,087 new cases on Wednesday, 960 people in hospital and a further 11 deaths, bringing the total number of Covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic to 210. New Zealand has officially recorded more than 500,000 cases of Covid-19 – nearly all of them during the Omicron wave – but modellers expect the true figure could now could be as high as 1.7 million. Modelling suggests Auckland has now reached peak cases, with numbers slowly dropping, and the rest of the country is expected to reach its peak by 5 April.
“We’ve been signalling for some time that when we come off the peak, that would be the time to be able to ease the use of things like vaccine passes and mandates,” Ardern said.
The changes include scrapping all gathering limits in outdoor settings and removing requirements for people to use the Covid-19 tracer app to scan in when entering businesses. Hospitality and other venues can increase their indoor gathering limit from 100 to 200 from Friday.
From 4 April, vaccine passes will no longer be needed to get into shops and venues, and vaccine mandates will be dropped for workers in education, police and the defence force. Those working in health, corrections, aged care and at the border will still need to be vaccinated to work.
Ardern said she was initially not in favour of vaccine passes and mandates, but following the Delta outbreak that lead to a three-month lockdown in Auckland, it became clear mandates were needed to boost vaccination levels required for safe reopening.
The mandates were “undoubtedly” one of the reasons New Zealand reached a 95% vaccination rate for the eligible population and achieved the near-elimination of Delta over summer, she said.
Today’s decision to loosen the mandates were not because of a weeks-long protest outside parliament, “but because it was safe to do so,” Ardern said.
The Covid protection framework, known as the traffic-light system, will stay in place but will remain flexible to change, including if new variants of the virus emerge. Mask-use will also remain to keep vulnerable communities safe, she said.
“This is not the end, but in some ways it is also a new beginning.
“Covid is still with us and it will be for some time to come, that’s why we are keeping in place our Covid protection framework.”
Ardern thanked New Zealanders for the sacrifices they made in past two years and reminded the country of how far it has come since the first tough restrictions were imposed, including lockdowns, gathering limits and closing the border.
“Those defences were blunt, they were hard and they were always intended to be temporary. New Zealand is now known for our successful Covid response.
“But while we’ve been successful it has also been bloody hard. Everyone has had to give up something to make this work. Some more than others.”
‘We still have a difficult journey ahead’
Leading health professionals and modellers have cautiously welcomed the announcement, saying that while vaccine passes made sense with Delta, Omicron has changed the game.
“Vaccines are still hugely effective at preventing severe illness, but less effective at stopping people catching and spreading the virus,” said Covid-19 modeller Michael Plank, from Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury.
“At the same time, we now have increasing levels of infection-acquired immunity in the population. This means that allowing unvaccinated people into places like cafes and bars doesn’t substantially alter the risk of catching Covid there.”
While Omicron may be nearing its peak, there is still “a difficult journey ahead”, he said. “At least as many people will be infected on the way down the mountain as on the way up, and pressure on our healthcare system is likely to remain high. Keeping mask rules is crucial to limit transmission.”
Immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu from the University of Otago said vaccination inequities remain for Māori and Pacific peoples, particularly in booster uptake and for children between 5-11 years old. “Care and caution is still needed especially for vulnerable communities”.