Jacinda Ardern says from 11.59pm on Wednesday vaccinated travellers will no longer need to isolate and vaccinated New Zealanders travelling from beyond Australia will be allowed to return from this Friday, also without having to self-isolate.
Watch a replay of the prime minister's press conference:
Ardern told Morning Report today that the latest advice to the government from epidemiologist Sir David Skegg and his team - who have been advising the government on how to safely re-open the border - had been received late yesterday.
Sir David joined Ardern at the briefing.
She says when the government set out its plan, it noted that as case numbers increased, the impact of cases at the border would be less pronounced.
The strong advice of public officials at that time was that isolation was still needed for people entering the border, but there was a not too distant future where that would not be the case.
Ardern says advice from the group taking another look at those settings was presented at 4pm yesterday. The advice is being released this afternoon, and Prof Skegg is outlining it.
He says the MIQ system has been "a crucial factor in New Zealand's remarkable success so far in responding to Covid-19", but in weeks the pattern of risk has changed.
He says given the rapid change in risks posed, the group now believes it is appropriate to drop requirements for self-isolation for fully vaccinated travellers - both returning New Zealanders and tourists when borders are opened more generally.
Professor Skegg says arriving travellers should be tested within 24 hours of arrival and those who return a positive test should be managed in the same way as other Covid-19 cases.
"We recommend that whole genome sequencing should be carried out in those cases as a surveillance tool to detect the arrival of new variants of the virus. I think it's also important for us all to remember that this pandemic is not over, or nearly over. The virus continues to mutate and personally I would be surprised if we're still talking about Omicron at the end of the year."
Ardern says based on the group's advice, Cabinet has agreed vaccinated travellers entering New Zealand will no longer need to self-isolate from 11.59pm on Wednesday.
She says this decision was balanced with other factors - borders are still gradually reopening, and the government's staged reopening plan will remain in place to help stagger the impact on the current outbreak.
Every traveller will still be required to undertake a rapid antigen test (RAT) within the first 24 hours after arriving, and on day 5/6 after arrival.
Unlike others who test positive in the community, positive rapid antigen tests will need to get a further PCR test to confirm, and monitor new variants through genome sequencing.
All incoming travellers will also still be required to undertake a predeparture test.
Unvaccinated travellers will still need to enter MIQ. Ardern says MIQ will still remain a useful tool even if it is not used to the same extent as it was in the past.
Ardern says step two of the government's reopening plan - allowing New Zealanders and other eligible critical workers from the rest of the world - will also begin earlier than previously planned, from this 11.59pm this Friday.
Due to immigration processes, other non-New Zealanders who are part of step two of the government's reopening plan such as working holiday visa holders and RSE workers, will still be eligible to arrive from 13 March, but will not have to self-isolate.
When asked when New Zealand would open to tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Checkpoint he was confident the border would fully reopen "in the next few months".
"You would have heard from the prime minister Covid doesn't work to timelines and dates and calendars as we'd like it to, but what we're signalling is as we come off that peak, as we move through March into April, we can then start to take decisions, based on where we're at with the health system and so on, and it will be much sooner I think than people have expected... to be able to see people coming into New Zealand freely from everywhere."
A welcome development - Ardern
Cabinet will also shortly consider bringing the other steps in the reopening plan forward, Ardern says.
She says the news that incoming travellers will not need to self-isolate will be welcome to many.
Ardern says caution has served New Zealand well, and as the country continues to move through the Omicron peak restrictions will be removed when it is safe to do so.
She says for now, the government has done what it has been advised to do.
During question time, Ardern says the early feedback from experts is that at the moment welcoming home New Zealanders will have a minimal impact but the government does want to be careful about bringing in tens of thousands of travellers in a week just as we are managing this part of the outbreak.
Prof Skegg says it is sensible to be cautious at the moment because we haven't reached the peak of the Omicron outbreak.
"We certainly wouldn't want tens of thousands of people coming in at the moment, but obviously - I think later in the year - there will be the opportunity to welcome tourists, hopefully more quickly than we envisaged."
He says that would be about safeguarding people's health and the economy as well.
Auckland to peak first - PM
Ardern says it's likely that Auckland will peak before other regions, and things are tracking more quickly than modellers first expected. She says that peak could come as early as mid-March or slightly earlier.
She says once the country is coming down the other side of that peak, and hospitalisations and cases are reducing and the health settings are more stable, that's when the government will be able to consider removing further restrictions, including at the border.
Asked whether the government should have moved faster, she says that would have meant asking experts to anticipate the situation, rather than having it before them, or moving before getting advice.
Skegg says that if the advice was sought two or three weeks ago, the advice would likely have been different.
The prime minister says we can't assume that a future variant will be less severe, which is part of the reason why the government is retaining MIQ facilities.
She says some facilities will become part of a permanent network. Ardern says the roughly 150 individuals who are eligible to go into self-isolation are essentially released from today.
Asked if the government will do anything to stop people coming from Australia and going to the protest at Parliament, Ardern says nothing will be done to prevent people's movement in New Zealand but notes that unvaccinated individuals will still have to go through MIQ.
Prof Skegg says the group has been asked to look at whether mandates are still useful, and plans to finish reviewing that within the coming weeks.
Ardern says it's hard to estimate or predict the behaviour of tourists and whether they may want to come to New Zealand.
She says based on the experience in Australia, it's likely to take a while - perhaps years - to get back to levels seen previously.
"I think our industry knows it will be a rebuild and at the same time we want to continue to encourage New Zealanders to enjoy domestic tourism too."
Prof Skegg says New Zealand is well prepared for this Omicron outbreak compared to many other countries, but he urges people who are eligible and have not yet got their booster to do so.
"Even the word 'booster' implies an optional extra. It's not. In order to be fully protected, you need three doses ... we've got to strive to get everyone protected if we can."
Ardern says the estimate now is that because of the measures that are already in place, but assuming self-isolation, between 100 to 425 additional cases could arrive into the community every week due to the first two steps in the reopening plan. With no self-isolation, that would be expected to be higher still.
She says it was estimated that even with self-isolation, about a third of cases would be expected to still seed further into the community.
Regarding the protest in the grounds of Parliament, Ardern notes that Parliament is sitting in a hybrid model - with some MPs appearing in the House and others beaming in from around the country. This is because of the Omicron outbreak, not because of the protests. She also says it is well known there are Covid cases connected with the protest - "it is a Covid camp".
She says while there are more officers across the country than New Zealand has previously had, there's no question the staffing of police at the protest - to ensure people can safely continue their work and go about their business - will have had an impact on police availability for other work.