Cabinet to consider 'changes' to COVID-19 vaccine passes, mandates - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Cabinet will this week consider "changes" to COVID-19 vaccine passes and mandates, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

"Over the course of this week and next, Cabinet will be considering the changes we've been discussing on mandates, vaccine passes, and the COVID Protection Framework," Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference. 

"We'll look to make announcements on these decisions next week."

The Government has been under pressure to justify mandatory vaccination for sectors of the workforce now that more than 95 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated with two doses. 

Vaccination is mandatory for workers across health, education, Corrections, Fire and Emergency, the border and close contact businesses that operate vaccine certificates under the COVID Protection Framework, or traffic light system. 

Vaccine mandates have been highly contentious, prompting a three-week protest at Parliament that ended in a violent standoff with police and more than 120 arrests

Newshub revealed last month that more than 2600 workers had been stood down across the Government's sectors mandated to be vaccinated. Since then, the mandate for police and Defence Force has been quashed by the High Court.

Ardern has already signalled the Government's intention to roll back the mandates and passports after the Omicron variant has peaked in the community. 

"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," she said last month. 

"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."

While some experts warn it's too soon to celebrate, the number of daily COVID-19 cases has been reducing. The Ministry of Health reported 15,540 on Monday and 14,494 on Sunday compared to more than 20,000 on most days earlier last week. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has highlighted the importance of vaccination. 

Citing research from January, Dr Bloomfield said last month: "Compared with being unvaccinated, the odds of contracting Omicron after receiving three doses dropped by 67 percent - two-thirds - and for Delta the risk declined by a stunning 93 percent."

But National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has been questioning the need for mandates now that the population is highly vaccinated. 

In Parliament last week he suggested that "the utility of vaccine mandates are considerably diminished, given more than 95 percent of the eligible New Zealand population has now had two doses of the vaccine, and the impact of vaccination on transmission under Omicron is nowhere near what it was under Delta". 

His comments came amid reports that unvaccinated Ministry of Social Development staff had been called to meetings to discuss their future. Oranga Tamariki let go 19 frontline staff who were covered by the mandate required for health and education workers.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in Parliament the use of vaccination requirements for certain workforces was something the Government kept under review.

"It is possible that some workforces will find those requirements removed before others and will do that based on public health advice and based on a proportionate risk assessment as we make those decisions," he said last week. 

"Many of the workforces covered by the vaccination requirements - so for people to continue to do those jobs they needed to be vaccinated - are in the public sector. The first course of action for those workforces was to find opportunities for redeployment.

"Where redeployment was not available, then people have been worked with to see whether there are other options available to them. 

"Termination of their employment has only been used as an absolute last resort and people will have had plenty of time to work through that process."