12 Sep 2022

Covid-19 traffic light system, vaccine mandates and most mask requirements to end

4:32 pm on 12 September 2022
Orange Traffic Light in front of Parliament

Orange Traffic Light in front of Parliament Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Covid-19 Protection Framework - also known as the traffic light system - will end tonight at 11.59pm, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

This means all mask-wearing requirements will be removed, except for in healthcare and aged-care facilities.

The most recent health advice was that with the lowest cases and hospitalisations since February, the population well vaccinated, and expanded access to anti-viral medicines, New Zealand was in a position to move forward, Ardern said.

Here are the key details:

  • Only those who test positive for Covid-19 will be required to isolate for seven days and household contacts will no longer be required to - but must daily test using a RAT beforehand
  • All government vaccine mandates are set to end in two weeks on 26 September
  • Vaccination requirements for incoming travellers and air crew will also be removed
  • Support for business and workers will continue through leave support payments
  • All New Zealanders aged 65 and over and Māori aged 50 and over will have automatic access to Covid-19 anti-virals if they test positive
  • From Tuesday, case and hospitalisation number reporting becomes weekly, not daily

Ardern said people may still be asked to wear a mask in some places but it would be at the discretion of those managing the location, not a government requirement.

The Ministry of Health would continue to provide guidance on mask use, and use would continue to be encouraged in places like public transport and when visiting vulnerable people - but it was no longer a requirement, she said.

"We do not want to ask more of you than the evidence tells us we should - that does not mean you shouldn't wear a mask or judge others who do, so please do respect those who choose to wear masks.

"People will use masks for their own individual reasons. They may personally be vulnerable, they may have events they may not want to be unwell for, they may not have had Covid-19. We all just need to respect everyone's individual decisions."

However, the government would bring back mask use if the circumstances demanded it, Ardern said. She would still personally choose to wear a mask on a plane and in some other circumstances, she said.

The additional measures around ongoing use of masks in some settings and isolation periods would still be covered by the epidemic notice and would continue to be reviewed regularly, Ardern said.

Vaccination requirements would also be at the discretion of employers.

"The only current mandates were for health and disability workers but with high vaccine rates now coupled with high numbers of people having had the virus themself, it's now safe for them to conclude," Ardern said.

It was the first time in three years that a case in a household will no longer mean everyone stays home, Ardern said.

"Instead we simply ask that household contacts undertake a daily RAT test, if you're negative you can continue to go about your work, life and schooling as normal."

Evidence showed moving down to a five-day isolation period could result in 15 percent to 20 percent more cases being released while infectious, also increasing hospitalisations, Ardern said. "We don't believe now is the time to do this," she added.

"We're keeping the seven days because we know that actually that removes the likelihood of people being out in the community while infectious - it limits it ... seven days gives us a level of protection and assurrance that we're not unnecessarily growing those numbers."

Travellers arriving into New Zealand will still be encouraged to return test results on day 0/1 and day 5/6, but it will not be a legal requirement.

"We will continue to offer follow-up PCR tests and genome sequencing of positive cases amongst travellers because this is an important part of monitoring for variants. We'll also use targeted surveillance at the border to keep a check on new variants," Ardern said.

"To date, we aren't seeing any uptick in community cases - high vaccination rates and covid cases globally mean many people coming here are vaccinated or have had the virus and so pose less risk."

Covid-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall has also announced today an additional purchase of 40,000 more anti-viral medicine courses, expected to enter New Zealand in the next few days.

She also said the government would continue to monitor testing and the international situation and would maintain preparedness for variants.

The work announced as part of the variant planning continued and it was about preparedness and understanding the capabilities required should we need to stand those up in future, Verrall said.

Effort was being put into the role of scanning what was happening internationally and public service chief executives had recently tested to ensure their roles and responsibilities were clear should a pandemic response be needed again in future, she said.

Wastewater testing would also be brought in for the border - particularly at airports, Verrall said.

The latest modelling now took greater account of "hybrid immunity" - vaccines combined with previous infections - and currently suggested the possibility of just one smaller wave later this year, she said.

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