Vaccine passes and some mandates will be done away with after New Zealand's Omicron outbreak peaks, which is likely to occur by the end of March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.
Based on the experience seen in some countries, there could be a "rapid decline" in cases following the peak, before they stabilise at a lower level, she said. It would be at this point where "we can start to do things differently", with Ardern mentioning that the traffic light settings will change.
"The COVID Protection Framework is built to keep our hospitals and wider health system running. Once we come out the other side of the peak, it will be clearer that we've reached our high point and that we have managed it, that our hospitals have managed and we can begin to ease the public health measures that did the job in slowing the wave down."
Other tools used to limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable populations may also be removed at this point. That includes vaccine passes, which Ardern described as "the least bad option" in the face of Delta and Omicron.
"Vaccine passes were a way of ensuring that within the relatively free system of the traffic lights, that people who were in high-risk places had some layer of protection," Ardern said.
"But once we come through a wave and a peak of Omicron, that equation changes because many unvaccinated people at that point will have been exposed to COVID 19.
"Put simply, the reason we will be able to move away from vaccine passes and many mandates is because more people will have had COVID."
While vaccine mandates will be eased in some places where they are less likely to impact on vulnerable people, they will remain "important in some areas for some time".
As of Monday, 116 people are in hospital with COVID-19 with one person in ICU or HDU. Two deaths were recorded, as were 2365 new community cases. That's the second-highest daily case total after 2522 on Sunday.
"We are predicting cases will continue to double every three to four days," Ardern said. "It's likely then that very soon we will all know people who have COVID or we will potentially get it ourselves."
High vaccination rates, Omicron's more mild symptoms and access to boosters make that a lot less scary prospect, she said.
The look-forward by Ardern on Monday came as protesters occupied Parliament's front lawn and surrounding streets for a 14th consecutive day, many of whom are calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates. The demonstrations have crippled central parts of Wellington, while some of those there have hurled abuse at members of the public.
Ardern denied that the ongoing protests had prompted her to set out when restrictions will ease.
"We all want to go back to the way that life was, and we will, I suspect sooner than you think. But when that happens, it will be because easing restrictions won't compromise the lives of thousands of people, not because you demanded it," she said in a message to protesters.
Considering New Zealand's daily COVID-19 cases are still trending upwards, Ardern said no specific date could be given for when the mandates will end. But it would be "well beyond the peak" and when pressure on the health system was "manageable".
She said the traffic light system would remain due to the potential for new variants in the future and because New Zealand is about to face its first winter dealing with both COVID-19 and influenza.
"As our borders open, we approach winter with the potential of more illness. We need to ensure our health system can manage a heavier burden as well."
About 30 minutes before Ardern's press conference, National's Christopher Luxon addressed the nation in a speech titled 'A Divided Society'.
In it, Luxon claimed Ardern led the "most divisive Government in recent memory" and that protests outside Parliament "is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time".
He said protesters were "showing a flagrant disregard for the law", but "there are frustrations shared by law-abiding and well-intended people" across New Zealand about the lack of a COVID-19 plan.
Luxon proposed phasing out mandates when the peak ends, including with border workers and for children taking part in extracurricular sport after school.
"I continue to think that mandates for healthcare workers are reasonable. You want people dealing with COVID in our hospitals to be vaccinated, for example."