COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has announced that home isolation will be allowed for vaccinated international arrivals from three different dates across early 2022.
Vaccinated Kiwis travelling from Australia will be able to skip managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) and instead self-isolate for seven days, from January 17, while vaccinated Kiwis arriving from other countries can do the same from February 14.
And from April 30 onwards, fully vaccinated people from all countries - except for Papua New Guinea - will be able to travel to New Zealand without going into MIQ. These arrivals will also be required to self-isolate at home for seven days.
The 'Very High-Risk' classification for Indonesia, Fiji, India, Pakistan and Brazil will be removed early next month, meaning non-Kiwis citizens from those countries will be able to travel to New Zealand again. However, the classification will remain for Papua New Guinea, where only 2 percent of the population is vaccinated.
All travellers from Papua New Guinea must spend 14 days in a non-Very High Risk country before coming to New Zealand. Exemptions will be provided for humanitarian reasons.
On top of self-isolation for seven days, overseas arrivals must also provide proof of a negative test before flying, be tested on the day of arrival, and get a negative test before entering the community.
However, Hipkins said the settings "will continue to be reviewed against the risk" posed by travellers entering New Zealand.
"We are making this announcement today to give families, businesses, visitors and airline and airport companies certainty and time to prepare. It's very encouraging that as a country we are now in a position to move towards greater normality," Hipkins said.
"Further details on how self-isolation will be implemented will be made available in December, and include guidance on how people can travel from their arrival airport to their location of self-isolation and requirements for the places where they can self-isolate."
It doens't mean MIQ will come to an end.
"This does not mean the end of MIQ as a system, which was always intended to be temporary at this scale and has served us incredibly well - with more than 190,000 people brought home since our borders closed in March 2020," Hipkins said.
"There will continue to be a role for it in the foreseeable future."
Non-vaccinated Kiwis flying into New Zealand, for example, will still need to spend two weeks in a state-run facility before being allowed back into the community.
But Opposition parties National and ACT have been urging the Government to ditch the MIQ requirement in time for Christmas, to allow families to reunite over the holiday period, especially since more than 1500 COVID-19 cases are currently isolating at home in Auckland.
"If someone is double vaccinated and they do not have COVID, where is their risk? There is no risk. You can't transmit COVID if you don't have COVID," National leader Judith Collins said on Tuesday.
With Australia opening up quarantine-free travel with Japan and South Korea, and inviting international students from next month, Collins fears New Zealand is being left behind.
"The risk is that this country goes down this rabbit hole of thinking we can be some sort of hermit kingdom and not be able to come out of that without this fear of everything.
"We need to get on with our lives and we need to be able to get people vaccinated but we need to do it without fear and without threats."
Not all experts support the Government's rules. Professor Michael Baker and his colleagues from Otago University penned a blog earlier this month highlighting "inconsistent and arbitrary" MIQ requirements.
"If you're at the supermarket in Auckland, a fully vaccinated person randomly teleported from Canada is less likely to infect you than an average resident Aucklander in the aisles," they wrote.
But Hipkins is concerend about around international arrivals seeding cases into the community.
"Contacts coming across the international border aren't in our contact tracing system whereas the local community cases already are, so we have to deal with cumulative risk. We can't just simply throw the floodgates open. We want to do this in a managed way that means we continue to control COVID in the community."
Hipkins acknowledged many Kiwis overseas are desperate to get home. Thousands are unable to secure a spot in the MIQ lottery system.
"Some people and businesses want us to start to open up before Christmas, and that's understandable, but others want us to be more cautious. We acknowledge it's been tough but the end of heavily restricted travel is now in sight.
"There continues to be a global pandemic with cases surging in Europe and other parts of the world, so we do need to be very careful when reopening the border.
"In the end, we've done what we've always done, and that is to follow expert advice - which continues to show us the border is our biggest risk for new cases. For example, our current outbreak which now has over 7000 cases associated with it, stems from a single traveller traveling from Australia to New Zealand.
"A phased approach to reconnecting with the world is the safest approach to ensure risk is carefully managed. This reduces any potential impacts on vulnerable communities and the New Zealand health system."