Kiwis arriving from Australia will be able to skip MIQ and self-isolate instead from March, as part of a staged border reopening, with most international tourists able to enter by July.
From February 28, fully vaccinated Kiwis in Australia will be able to skip managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) and instead self-isolate for 10 days or seven, depending on which stage of the Omicron response is currently in play. This is step 1 of the reopening plan.
At step 2, from March 14, self-isolation will apply to Kiwis in other parts of the world, as well as skilled workers earning at least 1.5 times the median wage (NZ$27 an hour), and people with Working Holiday Scheme visas.
The border will then open to offshore temporary visa holders, who can still meet the relevant visa requirements, from April 13, as part of step 3. The Government will also allow up to 5000 international students in time for the second semester. Further exemptions for critical workforces that do not meet the 1.5 times the median wage will be considered.
Though no specific date is given, at step 4, starting from July, the border will open to anyone from Australia, as well as countries with whom New Zealand has a visa-waiver agreement - more than 50. People with Accredited Employer Work Visas will also be allowed in, meaning the skilled and health worker border exception can be phased out.
This step is likely to begin when there is a "much larger" number of cases in New Zealand than there are now. There is also a "high likelihood" this step will be brought forward.
And then from October - again, no specific date is given - the border will open to visitors from anywhere in the world, as part of step 5.
It remains to be seen if self-isolation at home will be required at steps 3, 4 and 5.
"I want to note that we will be continually monitoring the need for and the value of self-isolation," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in her Reconnecting New Zealand to the World speech in Auckland on Thursday.
"The strong advice from our public health officials is that we still need it to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case. For now though we must continue to heed the public health advice that has served us so well."
It's important to note that the steps only apply to the fully vaccinated, which at this stage means two doses of vaccine. The Government is looking into expanding it to a booster dose, though not all countries currently offer one. MIQ will remain for unvaccinated travellers arriving in New Zealand.
"While travellers will no longer need to stay in MIQ, we are maintaining border measures to reduce the spread of the virus," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Thursday.
"The self-isolation requirements for travellers will mirror the way we treat contacts of cases in New Zealand. That means a current requirement of 10 days, but that will drop to seven days when we move to phase two of our pandemic plan as cases rise.
"Isolation requirements will be kept under constant review, and we do expect them to reduce. The reopening to visa free tourists is also likely to be brought forward, with July being the latest date we anticipate this happening.
"All arrivals will be provided three rapid antigen tests at the airport, one for use on day 0/1, and one for use on day 5/6, with one extra for backup. This approach means we will continue to identify cases that enter through the border and limit their wider contact with the community."
Ardern gave a similar reopening speech in August last year, but then came the Delta outbreak. The Government's plan to allow-self-isolation for returning Kiwis in Australia from January 17 was postponed until the end of February due to the threat of Omicron.
The Government also postponed the latest MIQ lottery voucher release for March and April, meaning the only way to get into New Zealand was by applying for an emergency room.
The implications were brought into the spotlight this week by pregnant Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis, whose emergency application was rejected by MIQ, despite informing them she would be forced to give birth in war-torn Afghanistan.
The Government is in a better position to begin opening the border now that a million more people in New Zealand are eligible for a booster vaccination, with the interval between the second dose and the booster reduced from four months to three.
New Zealand is also one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, with 94 percent of over-12s fully-innoculated with two doses.
"I know while many will celebrate today's reopening, others will feel anxious about the resumption of people across our border," Ardern said in her speech.
"But here are the safeguards: we will be as boosted as possible at the end of February, the phasing reduces the risk of a surge in cases, and travellers will be testing and isolating, with MIQ remaining for the unvaccinated. This means we will know quickly if a traveller has the virus including any new variants.
"And on that point I want to note that we will be continually monitoring the need for and the value of self-isolation. The strong advice from our public health officials is that we still need it to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case. For now though we must continue to heed the public health advice that has served us so well."
"Overall, opening back up in this managed way balances inflows of travellers so people can reunite and fill our workforce shortages, while also ensuring our healthcare system can manage an increase in cases. After all, our strategy with Omicron is to slow the spread, and our borders are part of that."