Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denies new plan to ease COVID-19 vaccine mandates was in response to Parliament protest

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insists she was "absolutely not" responding to the Parliament protesters by outlining a plan to ease COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

In a speech from the Beehive on Monday, Ardern said COVID-19 restrictions like vaccine certificates and mandates will start to ease after the Omicron variant has peaked in roughly three to six weeks.

"At that point, if we follow the pattern of other countries, we'll likely see a rapid decline, followed by cases stabilising at a lower level. That is the point when we can start to do things differently," Ardern said. 

"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.

"But once we come through a wave and peak of Omicron, that equation changes because many unvaccinated people will at that point have been exposed to the virus."

Ardern said vaccine mandates would likely remain for health workers who deal with vulnerable people, but for other sectors it would be reviewed. 

When asked if her announcement was a response to the protesters outside demanding an end to vaccine mandates, she replied: "Absolutely not."

"When that happens, it will be because easing restrictions won't compromise the lives of thousands of people - not because you demanded it."

Ardern's comments came as the protest against COVID-19 restrictions at Parliament entered its third week - a demonstration the Prime Minister has described as "illegal" due to the estimated 800 vehicles illegally parked near the precinct and tents erected all over Parliament's lawn. 

The five groups representing the Parliament protest - Convoy 2022 NZ, Freedom Alliance, New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out with Science, Outdoors & Freedom Movement, The Freedom and Rights Coalition and Voices for Freedom - want vaccine mandates removed immediately. 

COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory for workers across several sectors: border, health, education, police, Defence Force, Corrections, Fire and Emergency, and close contact businesses that operate vaccine certificates under the traffic light system. 

A statement from the protest group said on Sunday: "We remain committed to speaking with senior government members to open dialogue about the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act and lifting of all mandates so that people can return to work and society."

With a Horizon Research snap poll showing 30 percent support for scrapping vaccine mandates, some politicians are also starting to question the need for them - including ACT leader David Seymour and National leader Christopher Luxon. 

In a speech on Monday, Luxon said that while National was "strongly pro-vaccination", the public health rationale for mandates was now "much less than it was just a few months ago".

"The Government must step up and begin to heal the deep divisions it has created in our society before they get worse. Key to that is a plan on what criteria they will use to begin lifting vaccine mandates."

Seymour cited data showing that in the eight days from February 11 to February 18, when Omicron cases took off, there were 347 new unvaccinated cases, 140 new partially vaccinated cases, and 7085 new fully vaccinated cases.

"Of course, there are far more vaccinated than unvaccinated people, so the raw numbers do not tell the full story," Seymour said at the weekend. 

"This data does not mean that vaccination is not useful or effective. Vaccination is still your best bet for staying out of hospital. But even strongly pro-vaccine people like me have to confront what new evidence says about infection rates."

Ardern said now is not the time to remove vaccine mandates.

"What I feel is a responsibility to keep New Zealanders safe through this pandemic but to continue to ease all of the restrictions as it is safe to do so," she said at her post-Cabinet press conference. 

"We're giving a very clear indication but based on what we're seeing internationally on when we believe that will be able to occur. But I can tell you it's not as you're on the upside of a growing outbreak. It's when you come down that it'll be safe to do that. 

"To the Opposition I would say: We all took as parties a position - rightly so - that none of us would engage with what is ultimately illegal activity outside that borders on and demonstrates bullying and harassment of Wellingtonians. 

"I find their position at the moment quite upsetting to see they now seem to be responding and sympathising with the protesters."

Luxon described Ardern as "missing in action" in his speech amid demands from the protesters to have their views recognised by the Government. 

But after police confirmed on Monday that "some officers had human waste thrown over them by protestors" during an early hours operation to block off the protest with concrete barriers, Ardern said it was unreasonable to expect her to engage. 

"I find their position at the moment quite upsetting to see they now seem to be responding and sympathising with the protesters," she said. 

"It did risk certainly giving them the impression of sympathy towards those who have behaved frankly in a way that all Wellingtonians I believe would utterly reject. 

"As for the 'missing in action' [remark], I'll just let my presence here speak to that and my media engagements this morning and my media engagements tomorrow and the next day and likely the next day."

Ardern said her "primary goal" was to manage COVID-19 with "as few restrictions on our daily lives as possible, to keep people feeling confident and safe, and to accelerate our economic recovery".  

"As always, what that means in terms of changing restrictions isn't an easy question to answer in an often unpredictable pandemic. But by looking at what is happening overseas, we can begin to look to the future."