14 Aug 2023

Watch: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaks as government scraps remaining Covid-19 restrictions

3:57 pm on 14 August 2023

The government is scrapping all remaining Covid-19 restrictions including masks in hospitals, effective from tomorrow.

Most government measures to curb the spread of the virus have already been removed, but Health Minister Ayesha Verrall in a statement said the remaining requirements would no longer be in place from midnight on Monday night.

The remaining rules include mandatory seven-day isolation, and the requirement to wear a mask if visiting a healthcare or aged care facility.

Verrall said the Ministry of Health's guidance was for people to continue to stay at home if unwell or testing positive for Covid-19, but it was reduced to five days - not seven - and no longer a legal requirement.

Mask wearing was also still an important way to help prevent the spread of illness in disability and aged care settings, she said. Rapid Antigen tests would also still be available for free.

"While our case numbers will continue to fluctuate, we have not seen the dramatic peaks that characterised Covid-19 rates last year," she said.

"This, paired with the population's immunity levels, means Cabinet and I am advised we're positioned to safely remove the remaining COVID-19 requirements."

She said Covid-19 accounted for 2.2 percent of hospital admissions this morning, and New Zealand was likely past the winter influenza peak.

"It has been a long road, however thanks to lots of hard work, New Zealand's Covid-19 approach has moved from an emergency response to sustainable long-term management."

Speaking at this week's post-Cabinet meeting media briefing, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he wanted to "take a moment to acknowledge the significant milestone that we are recording today, the formal end of what was a uniquely challenging time for the country and of course for the world".

Chris Hipkins

Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Using the word 'was' in that sentence to describe our Covid-19 response in the past tense really does bring home what has been a very interesting and challenging time.

"About three and a half years ago on the 25th of March 2020, we moved to Covid-19 alert level four and the entire nation went into self-isolation as a state of national emergency was declared. It was an incredibly fearful time for us and for the world and no one at that time could foresee how things were going to turn out, but the speed with which things moved, the unity of the Kiwi response and the sacrifices that were all commonplace all contributed to the many thousands of lives that were saved.

"2035 people have died in New Zealand with Covid-19 as the main underlying cause, and the virus contributed to the deaths of a further 1214 people. That starkly reinforces the deadly nature of Covid-19 - all of those people were loved - but if New Zealand had a similar rate of Covid-19 mortality as the United States we would be reporting around 15,000 deaths from Covid."

He said the government also worked hard to safeguard people's incomes and futures, and the economy.

"Despite these successes and saving lives and livelihoods there is absolutely no sugar-coating just how difficult Covid-19 has been for New Zealand and New Zealand families.

Closing the border, lockdowns, the travel bubble with Australia. These things had an impact on people's lives and livelihoods and on people's wellbeing.

"Auckland in particular did the heavy lifting for the rest of the country, going through extended lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus ... and then of course there was MIQ. By February last year almost 230,000 travellers - more than the population of Wellington - had gone through our managed isolation facilities. It was incredibly tough for families and for those working at those facilities but it kept Covid-19 out of our community or at low levels and it crucially gave New Zealanders time to get vaccinated.

"We undertook the fastest and most effective vaccine campaign in New Zealand's history ... the response ultimately delivered what was needed under incredible pressure. It meant we were able to step down carefully from pandemic response to business as usual and ultimately reach the point that we're now at today.

"Nothing would have been possible without the dedication and selflessness of the many thousands of people who mobilised with their efforts and with their expertise."

The restrictions were being removed now because the public health risk was now considered low compared to other stages of the pandemic, he said.

"I do want to say there were times during the peak of our Covid response when I longed for this particular day. The weight of the enormous decisions that we took sat heavily. I have to confess as I'm announcing this today it seems a bit of an anticlimax."

He acknowledged the vaccine mandates created "more of a wedge in the community than I think any of us would like to have seen" and was very hard for some families - but it also supported New Zealand's high vaccination rate which was one of the main reasons for the country's success in mortality rates.

Verrall pushed back on questions about whether any vaccination mandates remain, saying for many years there had been requirements for certain health roles to be vaccinated against, for instance, Hepatitis.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall at a post Cabinet meeting media standup on 3 July, 2023.

Ayesha Verrall Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She said the most recent advice about whether to remove the remaining requirements did not cite pressure on the health system as a reason to keep them.

"It is not the main factor driving disruption, it is less than 2 percent of presentations to Emergency Departments - much less than, say, influenza.

"There was no percentage estimate on hospitalisations that was in any way significant."

Verrall said wastewater testing and whole genome sequencing was continuing as part of surveillance, and ESR was expanding wastewater testing to assess other illnesses and conditions.

She said other public health systems had also been strengthened.

"I now visit hospitals and see emergency departments now have multiple negative pressure rooms where they can treat Covid and other infectious diseases."

On MIQ, he said: "I looked at multiple different variations, the fundamental there was that we had over a million people trying to get into the country and we were only ever going to be able to accommodate four or five thousand at a time. It was always going to be a collision course that was going to be really challenging".

Hipkins thanked those others who helped front the Covid-19 response, most of whom have since moved on to other roles, and further thanks all New Zealanders for their efforts.

He rejected the suggestion the announcement was related to the coming election.

"We're not still in the middle of winter, we've only got a couple of weeks to go before spring."

Hipkins said there were not many changes he would make to the pandemic response, with many of those decisions hinging on the information the government had at the time. He said the one exception would be doing more to ease the pressure on Aucklanders during the final lockdown, which went on for a long time.

The government now awaited the outcome of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the lessons learned, he said.

"It's been a phenomenal thing, it's probably been the biggest thing that any New Zealand government has grappled with, of this nature and of this scale, for a generation or more ... I certainly hope it is the last [Covid-19] press conference."

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