15 Aug 2023

Covid-19 restrictions dropped: What you need to know

3:32 pm on 15 August 2023
Graphic for Covid-19 WYNTK explainer.

Photo: RNZ

Explainer - The last remaining Covid-19 mandates have been dropped by the government.

It is no longer a legal requirement to self isolate for seven days if you test positive for Covid-19 and masks do not need to be worn in healthcare facilities.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced the changes on 14 August and they came into effect first thing on 15 August.

But what is expected of you if you test positive? What are your rights with taking sick leave? What do the experts think of the removal of the last remaining restrictions? How did we get here?

RNZ is here to clear it all up.

What did the government announce on 14 August?

In a post-Cabinet press conference, Hipkins and Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall announced all remaining Covid-19 restrictions would be scrapped.

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

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

That meant mandatory seven-day isolation and wearing a mask when visiting a healthcare of aged care facility were no longer required by law.

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".

"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."

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

Hipkins rejected the suggestion the announcement was related to the upcoming election.

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."

What do the experts think?

Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker urged people to stay home when they were sick with Covid-19, despite all restrictions lifting.

Professor Baker said Covid-19 had transitioned from a pandemic threat to an endemic infectious disease.

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Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker. Photo:

"Unfortunately that means it's there the whole time, it is still in New Zealand amongst the infectious diseases, the leading cause of death and hospitalisation and we know that those infections and reinfections are going to add to that burden of long Covid."

Baker said New Zealand would see new subvariants of the virus arrive that would better escape immunity.

The government needed to look at how to reinforce those behaviours that prevented Covid-19 from spreading now that the mandates had been removed, he said.

General Practice New Zealand chairperson Dr Bryan Betty said practices like mask wearing and self-isolation should be encouraged for all viruses, not just Covid-19.

He said people needed to continue with the lessons that were learnt from Covid-19 but which were applicable to all viruses that were spread from person-to-person such as influenza and RSV.

"Voluntarily staying at home if you do have a flu or a cold so you don't spread it, and I think masking in public areas of health facilities voluntarily is something we should still keep in play."

Health providers should consider ensuring masks were worn in places where sick people gathered such as hospitals or GPs' waiting areas, Betty said.

University of Otago epidemiologist and associate professor Amanda Kvalsvig said the decision to remove all protections was a concerning one.

"One of the reasons New Zealand's pandemic response was so effective in 2020 was that New Zealanders were highly motivated to keep themselves and others safe.

The government is now removing all Covid-19 protections, including in healthcare. This is a concerning decision with widespread implications, especially for disabled people, people with long-term health conditions, and those who care about them."

Kvalsvig said New Zealanders needed to continue keeping people safe even when the government policy was "no longer aligned with those values".

"We need to make sure that Aotearoa NZ continues to benefit from its hard-won pandemic experience. People with decision-making power, for example employers, can use that power to maintain workplace safety, ensuring that unwell workers are able to stay home and recover without infecting their co-workers.

"And all of us, however bullet-proof we might feel personally, can continue to make sure that any infection we have stops with us. We can never know who might be further down the chain of infections, and what an infection might mean for them."

University of Canterbury professor Michael Plank said the overall decision was "a reasonable one".

"The government took a relatively cautious approach in April to extend the isolation mandate because of the risk that a winter Covid wave could coincide with the flu season, putting severe strain on our healthcare system. Now, the worst of the flu season is probably behind us and Covid levels have remained low throughout winter.

"Over the longer term, Covid is not going away and there will certainly be further waves."

Are Kiwis in support of the restrictions being dropped?

Some people spoken to by RNZ in Wellington were concerned by the drop in the last remaining restrictions.

"I think it's a bad idea," said one, "I'm not sure that the risk of Covid being spread is low enough to justify dropping the seven day requirement," said another.

One woman said she did not believe it would have much of an impact.

"Covid feels like something that's happened in the past, it's not so relevant now," she said.

But another Wellington resident said: "Something like Covid, it's not going away and how many places actually have enough sick leave? I don't know. Personally, I think waiving it all is a little bit sudden."

And another said: "We saw a big collective movement, now the government's sort of saying 'you're on your own'."

What happens if I get Covid-19 now?

Despite the government dropping the seven day isolation mandate for a Covid-19 positive person, the Ministry of Health was still encouraging people to stay at home for five days if unwell or if you tested positive.

A positive result of rapid antigen test is seen in this illustration photo

Photo: AFP

Verrall said mask wearing remained an "important way" to reduce the spread of any respiratory illness, including Covid-19, in health and disability care facilities.

According to the Unite Against Covid-19 website, if you have tested positive for Covid-19, it was recommended you stay home for five days - even if symptoms were mild.

"Day 0 is the day your symptoms started or when you tested positive, whichever came first. This means you should not go to work or school.

"If you do need to leave your home during your five day recommended isolation period, it is very important you take precautions to prevent spreading Covid-19 to others."

It was recommended you wear a mask when leaving the house and not visit a healthcare facility (unless needing medical care), visit an ages care facility, have contact with anyone at risk of getting very sick from Covid-19.

"You should discuss your return to work with your employer or your child's return to school with their school principal. Your employer or your school may require additional precautions."

For people who were already isolating because of a Covid-19 positive test when the mandates were dropped, it was still recommended that they continue to isolate for five days.

"If you have already been isolating for six or seven days, and are well, you can return to your normal activities."

Do I now have to use my own sick leave when I have Covid-19?

According to the Work and Income website, the Covid-19 Leave Support Scheme - which was set up to help employers pay employees who had to self-isolate because of Covid-19 - ended on 15 August.

"You can still apply if your employee was in self-isolation before 13 August."

From now on, this meant employees would need to use their regular sick leave if not able to work because of Covid-19.

Auckland Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Brett O'Riley said it would take some time to adjust to but believed Covid-19 had "fundamentally changed" how workplaces dealt with illness.

Given how tight the labour market was and that employers were having to "bend over backwards" to retain staff, O'Riley said giving employees extra sick leave would be one of the easier things they had to deal with.

"I think giving staff a few extra sick leave days because they are unwell will be well and truly in the wheelhouse for most employers."

O'Riley said the majority of businesses had seen the impacts of sick staff coming to work and most made it clear to their employees that they should stay home if they were not well.

"I think the bigger challenge actually is for sole traders and people who are on their own. That's a situation where you are the employer and sometimes it's difficult to deal with."

O'Riley said while a lot of progress had been made in how workplaces deal with sickness, EMA was continuing its calls for revamping the health and safety legislation to make it much clearer what the expectations were across all work sites.

John Crocker of Unite Union said while the government was still urging people with the virus to stay home for five days it would be more difficult now that there was no Covid-19 leave support scheme.

"People will be going back to their 10 sick days a year. Now obviously that was good that the government put that through in the last couple of years but it was needed before Covid. Now, people are going to have to wind their Covid sicknesses into their standard sick days which is going to put pressure back on those."

He said registering Covid-19 tests online legitimised sick leave claims without clogging up the health system.

"Doctors hate it when workers come in 'I need a medical cert'. It's a burden on the primary healthcare system, it's a burden on the employees, now obviously employers have a right to police abuse of sick leave but that was a really neat short cut, and it would be good to have more of them."

Like O'Riley, Catherine Beard of Business NZ was confident the lessons learned during the pandemic would mean employers would not pressure staff to work when they were ill.

"I think normal health and safety operating practices will kick in and they would have been in place anyway. So, yeah, it's really hard to see what the mandate was adding really."

Beard said it was now up to employers to protect their workers and encouraged them to take leave when they needed it.

But isn't there a new variant?

Microbiologist and infectious diseases expert Siouxsie Wiles had been dreading the end of the rules she said helped prevent the spread of the virus.

Siouxsie Wiles

Microbiologist and infectious diseases expert Siouxsie Wiles. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

"It's kind of ironic we're doing it at this stage where there's a new wave starting in other countries. There's a few new variants around that are more infectious. There are experts in other countries calling for a return to masking in healthcare, it's the very smallest thing that could be done and here we are removing it."

According to the BBC, the World Health Organisation has declared a new sub-variant of Covid-19 called EG.5.

It had been unofficially named "Eris" and was a variant of interest with the WHO asking countries to monitor it as cases grew globally.

The WHO said it posed a low risk to public health, with no evidence that it caused more severe disease than other variants currently circulating.

EG.5 has become the dominant variant in the United States.

It has already been found in New Zealand, according to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research report released 4 August, which said it was "gradually increasing, but not at a rate that would cause a substantial surge in new cases".

XBB remains the most prominent variant in New Zealand.

What are our Covid-19 numbers like these days?

There were 5372 new cases of Covid-19 reported in New Zealand over the past week and 20 further deaths attributed to the virus.

The current death tally is at 3249, with the highest number of active cases in Canterbury, Waitematā and Waikato district health region.

In a statement, Verrall said while Covid-19 cases continue to fluctuate week-to-week, overall case numbers, wastewater levels and hospitalisations have trended downwards since the beginning of June.

In the past month, the number of cases hit their lowest since February 2022.

Verrall said the "dramatic peaks" seen last year had not been seen in 2023 and Covid-19 had put "considerably less" pressure on the health system this winter then planned for.

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

"We've only reached this point thanks to the hard work and care New Zealanders have taken over the course of the pandemic."

Verrall said Covid-19 accounted for just 2.2 percent of hospital admissions on the morning of 14 August and New Zealand had likely passed its winter peak of the flu.

How did we get here?

It has been more than three years since the Covid-19 pandemic began and changed the world as we knew it.

Here are some key dates from New Zealand's response and how we got to where we are now with no restrictions.

  • 28 February 2020 - the first case of Covid-19 is reported in New Zealand
  • 14 March 2020 - the government announces anyone coming into New Zealand - except those from the Pacific - must self-isolate for 14 days
  • 21 March 2020 - the alert level system is announced - and the country continues to move through levels 1-4 as the risk lowers and becomes greater
  • 2 December 2021 - a traffic light system replaces the alert level system
  • 3 February 2022 - mask use is increased as New Zealand prepares for Omicron variant
  • 11 March 2022 - isolation period drops from 10 to seven days
  • 4 April 2022 - vaccine passes are no longer needed and vaccine mandates for government workers ends
  • 12 September 2022 - the traffic light system ends, all mask wearing requirements removed, except in healthcare and aged care facilities, and only Covid-19 positive people need to isolate for seven days, not household contacts as well
  • 26 September 2022- the last of the the vaccine mandates for workers ends
  • 15 August 2023 - government removes need for people to self-isolate for seven days, wear masks in healthcare facilities

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