Chris Hipkins defends removing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for teachers amid concern for vulnerable children

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is defending the Government's loosening of restrictions amid concern for vulnerable people and children who have only recently become eligible for vaccination. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday announced the Government's plan to loosen COVID regulations. From the end of this week, there will be no more limits on outdoor gatherings while indoor gathering limits will also increase from 100 to 200.

Vaccine passes will also be optional for businesses from early next month and immunisation mandates are being rolled back to just a few industries including health, aged care, border and Corrections workers.

But the move has caused concern for some vulnerable communities, including 5 to 11 year olds who have only been eligible for vaccination in mid-January. 

Speaking with AM on Thursday, Hipkins defended the Government's decision, saying the risk is only marginally increased by dropping mandates for education. 

"Ultimately the relative level of risk is changing very marginally compared to what it was before. So removing the vaccine mandate for the education workforce doesn't mean that all those people who have been vaccinated now become unvaccinated. So we still have very high rates of vaccination across the country," he said. 

Hipkins said the Omicron variant along with high vaccine rates make some mandates no longer necessary.  

"The reality is that even vaccinated teachers can still get and pass on Omicron so things have changed quite a bit. Omicron has changed the game quite a bit since we've put those mandates in place. 

"We were dealing with Delta and earlier variants when we made the mandate decisions that continue to be enforced as of today. And the world has changed a lot, the virus has changed and we need to recognise that in the rules that we've got in place."

When announcing the reducing of restrictions on Wednesday, Ardern the changes were possible because the Omicron outbreak's peak was passing. 

"The evidence shows we are coming off the Omicron peak with cases in Auckland having already declined significantly, and a decline expected nationally by early April," Ardern said.

"To date we've had more than 500,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and expert modellers say there have probably been 1.7 million actual infections. That figure, coupled with 95 percent of New Zealanders being fully vaccinated, means we now have a high level of collective immunity.

"New Zealanders have worked incredibly hard to get through this pandemic and as a result of those efforts we are now in a position to move forward and change the way we do things."

She said New Zealand is highly vaccinated and no longer needs to rely on measures such as mandates and passes. But she stood by all the Government's pandemic measures.

"We only ever did things that were necessary to enable us to get through this pandemic as safely as possible and it worked. 

"It's one of the reasons we have such a highly vaccinated country now and it's one of the reasons we have the choices we have now too. I know it has been tough but I still absolutely stand by the decisions we've had to make."

The Prime Minister says the mandates achieved what they were meant to and were key to keeping New Zealanders safe.