21 Feb 2022

Easing of restrictions to begin 'well beyond' Omicron peak - Ardern

4:17 pm on 21 February 2022

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the Omicron outbreak is likely to peak in three to six weeks. At that point, she says, the country will move down the traffic light settings, easing off gathering limits.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Photo: POOL / Stuff / Robert Kitchin

"We are predicting cases will continue to double every three to four days ... it's likely then that very soon we will all know people who have Covid, or we will potentially get it ourselves," Ardern says.

She says there are three reasons that is no longer as scary a prospect as it used to be.

"Firstly, we are highly vaccinated, and that happened before Omicron set in."

Secondly she says that means Omicron will be a mild to moderate illness, and boosters make hospitalisation 10 times less likely.

Third, public health measures like masks, gathering limits and vaccine passes are helping slow down the spread to ensure everyone who needs a hospital bed can get it.

"So far, that plan is working. We have 46 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 367 in New South Wales and 664 in Victoria at the same point in the outbreak. Our hospitalisations too are well below Australian states at a similar time."

Ardern says cases are likely to peak in mid- to late March, some three to six weeks away.

At that point a rapid decline, followed by cases stabilising at a lower level is likely.

Ardern says at that point, the traffic light system can change, because it means public health measures used to protect the health system can be eased off.

She says vaccine passes have been necessary as the "least bad option" but they have always been temporary.

After we come through a wave and a peak of Omicron, many unvaccinated people will have been exposed to Covid-19.

She says coming through the peak will allow the government to ease mandates in places where they are less likely to impact on vulnerable people.

"They will remain important in some areas though, for some time."

Mandates are likely to remain for some areas - particularly sections of the healthcare workforce - but there will be a narrowing of where they are required, she says.

She says it's hard to set a date, but the government needs to ensure we are "well beyond the peak" and that the pressure on the health system is manageable.

She says the reasons not to do away with the traffic light system entirely is so the country is prepared for new variants and potential future waves, and the coming of winter at the same time as flu returns.

"To summarise then, the coming weeks. Covid will increase, and rapidly. There will be disruption and pressure from Omicron. We must brace through the next six weeks, but we can do so knowing the future with fewer restrictions is near because that has always been the course we have chartered."

She says as we reach the peak and start to come down we can all move towards a new normal we can all live with.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has outlined new financial supports to help businesses impacted by the red settings.

Daily Covid-19 cases continued to increase dramatically over the weekend, reaching a new high of 2522 on Sunday and remaining above 2300 today.

The high case load has also led to an increase in related hospitalisations, putting strain on the health system which is already seeing some patients spending up to 36 hours in emergency departments, often waiting for hours in corridors.

Ardern's message to protesters

Ardern says she has a final message for those occupying the lawns of Parliament: "Everyone is over Covid. No one wants to live with rules or restrictions, but had we not been willing to work together to protect one another then we would have all been worse off as individuals, including losing people we love. That hasn't happened here for the most part and that is a fact worth celebrating, rather than protesting.

"We all want to go back to the way life was, and we will, I suspect sooner than you think. But when that happens it will be because easing restrictions won't compromise the life of thousands of people - not because you demand it.

"Now is not the time to dismantle our hard work and preparation, to remove our armour just as the battle begins."

Ardern says she still has confidence in the police commissioner and "the enormous job" he and all police do every day, including on the forecourt of Parliament right now.

Asked when protesters will be gone, she says enforcement of the law is a decision that lies with police, she says.

She says her speech today was "absolutely not" in response to the demands of the protesters.

She says the protesters have been engaging in illegal activity that borders on and demonstrates bullying and harassment of Wellingtonians, and she finds the opposition calls for more details on lowering restrictions "quite upsetting to see they now seem to be responding and sympathising with the protesters".

She says no one should have to put up with having human waste thrown at them, as police say happened this morning.

This morning she again urged protesters at Parliament to go home.

Police this morning moved to contain the convoy protest - which has now been at Parliament for two weeks - by installing concrete barriers to prevent more vehicles from entering the area.

A researcher this morning warned that the continued presence of far-right elements among the protesters risks greater radicalisation, and possible violence.

Ardern has maintained there will be no engagement with the protesters, and although ACT leader David Seymour spoke to some of their representatives last week, all parties have since signed a letter from the Speaker saying there would be no dialogue from politicians until disruptive and threatening behaviour is brought to an end.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs