Post-peak plan a safe return to greater normality

Kia ora koutou katoa

I’m here today to set out the next set of changes to our Covid-19 settings in New Zealand.

After two long years of living through a pandemic, it’s easy to lose sight of how far New Zealand has come.

This exact day two years ago, Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced from the Ministry of Health that we had 36 new cases of Covid-19. Half at that time were from overseas travel, with the exception of the Queenstown World Hereford Cattle conference. We could contact trace 50 new cases a day back then. We hadn’t locked down yet, but the early signs were there. In fact, on the 23rd of March we reported two new community cases, including one in the Wairarapa.

I will forever remember that case, because prior to that time we could link the origin of every case to the border. That meant we still felt like we had some kind of control over Covid. But when we learnt about the Wairarapa case, we couldn’t. I remember asking all sorts of questions, trying to find a border link. In fact one official asked me if I would like to interview the case myself, I said I would, before realising he was joking.

As it turned out, that was indeed the first sign that we had community transmission. Days prior we had designed the alert level system, introduced it via a live national broadcast from the Beehive, and within days we were in a nationwide lockdown.

I have often been asked whether that was a hard decision. In my mind, it was not. Because we had no other defence. No other way to protect each other.

There was no vaccine.

There were no anti-viral medicines.

There was very little data to tell us which public health restrictions worked and which did not.

So we built our own defences, and we hunkered down.

But those defences were blunt. They were hard, and they were always intended to be temporary. Not because we would get tired and want to move on, but because with time came other tools to help us look after one another. Tools that weren’t as blunt, and weren’t as hard to live with.

That doesn’t mean the transition has been easy. But it has worked.

At the end of the first year of the pandemic the world had seen 1.5 million deaths, increasing to over 5 million by the end of the second year while vaccines were rolling out. New Zealand successfully eliminated the first wave and recorded the lowest number of deaths of any country in the OECD for two years in a row. Our actions saved thousands of lives. Without ever setting out to, New Zealand is now known for our successful Covid response.

Putting people’s health first was also the strongest economic response. There’s no doubt that we are now feeling the full brunt of global headwinds, but our comparatively low debt, record low unemployment and record investments in infrastructure and skills development will all help support our recovery.

But while we have been successful, it has also been bloody hard.

I want to start by thanking New Zealanders for the enormous sacrifices they have made over the past two years. There have never been easy options.

Everyone has had to give up something to make this work. And some more than others. Not everyone has agreed with the choices and trade-offs that have been made. And sometimes that’s had a knock-on effect – I imagine every family has had a difficult conversation with someone in their lives about Covid, vaccines, mandates or passes.

But in amongst what have sometimes been different opinions, there has been at least one unifying factor.

Everyone has been safer, but everyone is also tired. Everyone is fatigued. And some are worried that means we don’t care about each other anymore.

I know that is not the case. I still see, hear and read frequently in the letters I receive that we remain proud of what we have achieved together to date. As one person so aptly put it: “We are tired, not sick of each other.”

That person was right. But we’re not tired for nothing. The sacrifices and hard work has brought us here today, and now with more tools and with one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the world, we are able to keep moving forward safely. It’s meant we’re able to welcome back New Zealanders, family, friends and tourists, and take the next steps on our journey of reopening and recovery. And today it means we can set out the next steps.

In designing those steps we of course have had to keep in mind that Covid is here to stay. While that’s not something we get to decide anymore, we do have a choice in how we manage it.

So let’s start with our current situation, what the future looks like, and see what that means for the tools we have in front of us.

As you know, yesterday we reported 20,907 new cases, with a rolling 7-day average of around 17,000 cases a day. For most people, their symptoms have been minor and they have recovered well at home. For others less able to fight the virus, it presented a threat to their lives, and if not properly managed, a threat to our health system.

Our experts maintain the view that we have peaked in Auckland now, and that we should begin to see that reflected in hospitalisations soon, given the lag between the two.

The view is that the rest of the country will follow Auckland, given the city was the first place to see Omicron seeded, and breakout. Here you can see the plateau in cases, and the expectation that these numbers will continue to decline over the coming two weeks.

What you can also see is a relatively steady state, rather than a hard decline. Based on the experience of the likes of Australia, we currently predict that we will have a relatively continuous rolling baseline of several thousand cases a day. We also predict that we will have future spikes, with that being especially likely over the winter season.

That tells us two things.

First, with the ongoing presence of Covid in our community, we need to continue to use tools that can keep our vulnerable communities safe, such as those who are immunocompromised and those with disabilities. It also tells us that in times where we see cases grow, and pressure on our health system, we will need to act to slow that spread down as much as possible.

And there are ways we can do that, while also continuing to move forward.

That means keeping the Covid-19 Protection Framework, or the traffic light system, to help us manage in the future, including new variants.

We designed the traffic lights several months ago. Two things have changed since then – we are now dealing with Omicron rather than Delta, which we know behaves differently. We also have more data than we did before, and can identify which environments are high risk, and which ones aren’t. And thirdly, we have high rates of vaccination coverage.

We have used this information to assess all of the components of the traffic light system, and to make changes that ensure it’s effective, but also allows us to sustain it as we use it in the coming months.

Let me start with where we are right now, the RED setting.

This is the place where case numbers are high, and so are hospital admissions, so we pop on the breaks.

In particular, we have measures like a gathering limit of 100 people, which applies to events and hospitality. After analysing our own data, we identified that hospitality for instance had a secondary attack rate of 6.7 percent.

That transmission rate is relatively low, and this has been backed up by other research. And so, it is the view of our public health officials that we can safely increase these gathering limits indoors to 200 without having a significant impact on our health system and hospitalisations, especially given we will maintain our seated and separated rules for hospitality.

The second area we have analysed, is the difference between indoor, and outdoor gatherings. And there is a difference. While Omicron is more transmissible, the natural ventilation of an outdoor setting reduces the risk significantly. At Red we want to encourage gatherings and events outdoors. They are a way we can come together safely. And that’s why on the advice of our public health team, we are removing all outdoor gathering limits.

Sports, concerts, gatherings outside without limit, will resume.

What remains in use at this level, is of course masks. I know they are new for us, and most people really dislike them – for good reason! But they are so critical, and one of the ways we can show care and respect for one another, including our immunocompromised community.

Research published in the British Medical Journal late last year shows that mask-wearing reduces new Covid-19 cases by 53 percent. Masks matter.

That then brings me to ORANGE, where you’ll remember there are currently no capacity limits either indoors or outdoors – with the use of My Vaccine Pass, and masks are required indoors with some exceptions like education.

Having no capacity limit remains. But we want to apply what we’ve learned.

That’s why we will be firming up our gathering guidance for Orange. We know for indoor events close contact is higher risk, so to help organisers continue to provide the safest possible environments, we are encouraging larger events that are over 500 to either add extra capacity in a venue, or provide seating.

And finally, GREEN. This is very much an example of the new normal. There are no requirements or restrictions, but there is guidance. And we’ll still be in the system as a way of reminding each other that we need to be on watch, ready to move should we need to. So no changes here.

And so, simply put, RED means indoor gathering limits and masks, ORANGE means masks, and GREEN means guidance.

These changes are based on the best available evidence we have right now, in real time. We believe they will make the CPF easier to maintain, while also still being effective. The advice we have is that therefore, they are changes we can make almost immediately, and will come into effect from 11.59pm this Friday 25 March.

That means from this weekend, sports, outdoor events, can all resume. And hospitality can double its capacity but they must maintain seated and separated rules.

You’ll remember though that there is one element of the CPF framework that I haven’t talked about yet, and that is the future of vaccine passes.

Given the pandemic roller coaster everyone has been through, it’s easy to forget why we used them in the first place. They were first used by countries who were trying to move away from broad-based restrictions as vaccines became available. I remember not being in favour of their use. In fact, I am on record as having said that. But after several months of lockdown through Delta, it became clear that mandates were needed to achieve vaccination levels required for a safe reopening. It was a tough call, but mandates were undoubtedly required to get 95 percent of the eligible population vaccinated, to achieve the near elimination of Delta over summer.

But something has changed since we brought them in. And that something, is Omicron. In the pandemic so far, we have had more than 500,000 confirmed cases of Covid, almost all of which have been in the Omicron wave. 

Many cases don’t show symptoms and testing doesn’t catch every case. In fact, modellers say that total infections now could be as high as 1.7 million. The reality too is that Covid finds the unvaccinated, and for them the illness can be severe. A significant number of the roughly 180,000 unvaccinated Kiwis are likely to have now had Covid or may well in the future. Our vaccine pass system doesn’t incorporate that into the way it works, but the outcome is the same. We now have 95 percent vaccinated plus a number more who will have built some immunity from the illness itself.

We said some weeks ago, that when we started to come down off the peak the reason for keeping vaccine passes changes.

As this graph shows, that time is nearly upon us. And so from 11.59pm Monday 4 April, vaccine passes will no longer be required to be used as part of the Covid-19 Protection Framework.

There will be some businesses, events or venues who may still wish to use them for their own reasons. And they can if they wish to do so. We will maintain the systems in place, and update the passes over time to include boosters. But for now, they will no longer be mandated.

I say for now, as I will still provide the same disclaimer that every country realistically must – that should there be a variant that demands it, or a change in circumstances, we may yet need them again. But for post peak, that will no longer be the case.

There is one extra tool in our daily lives that falls into that category too, and that is QR codes.

As everyone now knows, we have changed our testing and isolation requirements. The isolation period for both positive cases and household contacts remains at 7 days. While we will keep that under regular review, there is no plan for us to contact trace more widely with the exception of high-risk environments like aged residential care facilities, or residential facilities for our most vulnerable.

That means, the reason for using QR codes changes.

And so, from this weekend, you will no longer be required to scan everywhere you go, and businesses are no longer required to provide the mechanisms to do so.

We do have an ask for everyone though. If a variant arises in the world, that evades vaccines or is more deadly, contact tracing will once again provide a critical role. Please stand ready as a business to stand up QR codes again, or as a citizen to pull out your tracer app at a moment’s notice. Don’t remove the app from your phone just yet.

Scanning has been a really important part of what we’ve achieved, so thank you everyone for playing your part.

But for now, we can all stop hovering around the entrance to a supermarket or venue while we stumble around on our phones – a welcome change for us all.

Finally, as a Cabinet we have also reviewed the role that vaccine mandates have played.

You’ll recall we were always cautious about their use, applying them to education, health, police and defence workforces, border and MIQ workers, and those where vaccine passes were in operation. 

As vaccination rates increased, we reached out to Professor David Skegg and the public health advisory group for advice on their future use. Their advice was clear, stating: “The case for or against is now more finely balanced, because of our relatively high vaccination coverage and increasing natural immunity, as well as the apparent lowering of vaccine effectiveness against transmission of the Omicron variant. While vaccination remains critically important in protecting New Zealanders from Covid-19, we believe that several of the vaccine mandates could be dropped once the Omicron peak has passed.”

And so on that basis, and in line with the public health advisory group advice, the government will not require mandates to be in place for education, police and defence workforces and those businesses operating vaccine passes from 11.59pm Monday 4 April.

Whether or not these workforces will continue to need to be vaccinated to do their work will be a decision for their employers or those otherwise responsible for those workforces.

We will be continuing their use for health, aged care workers, corrections staff, and border and MIQ workers.

The rationale in each case is clear, these are either workers supporting our most vulnerable, or they work in high-risk environments where spread would be rapid, or the exposure to new variants is high.

In continuing the use of mandates in these limited areas, we did however want to ensure they are used carefully. So, we have asked for Health to come back with advice on whether the mandates applied in the health sector, which covers thousands of workers, could be narrowed.

We know that Government were not the only ones to use mandates, in fact many of the mandate examples I have heard used are those that were applied by the private sector. Given the adjustments we are making today, MBIE is working to update advice to the private sector on their use more broadly.

Finally, I do have one message on vaccinations – even though there is no longer a requirement for many, please get vaccinated and please get boosted. It is one of our very best tools.

Every unvaccinated or unboosted person adds risk to the health of another. And with New Zealanders returning home from overseas and our borders shortly open to tourists it’s going to be even more essential to our recovery and protection against future variants. Being highly vaccinated will continue to be central to the strength and stability of our recovery.

And so, as we move to this next phase, I have a couple of final asks.

Two years ago we had very few tools. Now we have plenty. But one thing is still the same. We cannot do it alone, and it wouldn’t work if we did.

We are seeing businesses and workplaces show enormous agility by adopting infection prevention controls and testing to try and protect their work places.

We are seeing schools do what they can to keep their kids and community safe through changes in teaching patterns.

We are seeing individuals who may have friends or family that are unwell or vulnerable taking tests and wearing masks to keep them safe.

And most importantly, we are still seeing thousands of people vaccinated every day to look after one another.

As a Government, we need to make sure we are supporting businesses, communities, and individuals to have more control in managing their health and well-being. 

Because managing a pandemic, and supporting our economic recovery is going to take all of us.

To keep each other safe.

To keep our local businesses open and busy.

To support our hospitality providers.

To welcome back our tourists.

To support our recovery.

But if there’s one thing I know by now, is our ability to do all of that.

This is not the end, but in some ways, it is a new beginning.

I am happy to take your questions.