Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has quashed speculation that quarantine rules could change to allow overseas arrivals to self-isolate at home in time for Christmas.
"We have said that the next stage for changes at our border will be self-isolation. We've said that will be in the first quarter of next year," Ardern told reporters in Christchurch on Friday.
"We will work to provide greater specificity - dates that people can work to. But we have already indicated that it will be in the first quarter."
Her comments came after former National Party staffer Matthew Hooton wrote in an article for the NZ Herald that COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins would announce changes before the end of this month to allow returning Kiwis to self-isolate at home.
"It now seems certain it will mean the end, before Christmas, of the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) lottery system that has so stained Jacinda Ardern's, and New Zealand's, honour," Hooton wrote.
But Ardern said the Government is sticking to its plan of introducing self-isolation for international arrivals in the first quarter of next year.
"For the better part of two years now as we've managed COVID-19, we have brought in our managed isolation facilities, which have done an amazing job of supporting our strategy," she said.
"But we are now changing, moving forward, and with that will come changes to the way that we require people to look after themselves when they return home.
"But MIQ, once we change that setting, does mean that there'll be much greater options for New Zealanders to return home."
Ardern already confirmed earlier this week that while the time arrivals must spend in MIQ has been reduced, full home isolation won't be an option until 2022.
She hinted at a return to normality from January 17, which is when vaccine certificates or proof of a negative COVID-19 test - required in order to travel regionally and enter certain premises under the new COVID Protection Framework - may no longer be required.
"We're moving through all of this in phases. This is a considerable change in the way that we have managed COVID-19 and we're ensuring that we step through these changes deliberately and carefully," she said on Wednesday.
"What we have said around the international border is that the next phase for us will be removing the thing that has caused the greatest constraint by allowing self-isolation. What we need to do is release, in the near future, the date at which we consider that we'll be able to safely apply.
"But it will of course affect tens of thousands which is why we need to be cautious."
Hipkins said at the time the concern is around international arrivals seeding cases into the community.
"The changes that we make at the border could significantly increase the number of people travelling across the border, and even if the positivity ratio stays about the same - so even if we're getting 10 cases per 1000 - if we're having 5000 people per day coming into the country, that's another 50 or 60 cases potentially coming into the country, and so we have to make sure we're ready for that.
"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."
Ardern said on Friday, when self-isolation for overseas arrivals does come into effect, New Zealand citizens and residents will be prioritised.
"We've said that from the very beginning of our reconnecting work, that there will be emphasis on supporting the ability of New Zealanders and residents to move.
"The idea or issue of when people who are coming into New Zealand as tourists, that is not our first tranche. We are really focusing on citizens and residents."
Hipkins confirmed earlier this week that there were no plans to bring back the trans-Tasman bubble in time for summer.
"One of the key things we want to achieve when we make any change to the international border is to try and do changes that will stick rather than changes that we might have to change when circumstances change.
"Doing things at the same time as we do them domestically potentially adds a lot of additional risk to the system all at the same time and so I think people should expect to see things stepped out carefully so that we can keep control of the situation rather than do things all at once which means potentially we don't.
"Cabinet hasn't made a decision about that but it wouldn't be unreasonable for people to expect that there's not going to be significant change there until early next year."