Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed COVID-19 vaccine passes will end from April 4 and unvaccinated teachers can return as mandates narrow.
In a speech from the Beehive on Monday, Ardern said from April 4, vaccine mandates will be removed for all sectors except health, disability and aged care workers, as well as prison and and border staff.
All businesses, however, will retain the ability to voluntarily introduce workforce vaccination requirements following their own health and safety risk assessments.
It means COVID-19 vaccination will no longer be required for teachers and other education staff, as well as police and Defence Force workers. The vaccine mandate for police and Defence Force had already been quashed by the High Court.
Newshub revealed last month that more than 2600 workers had been stood down across the Government sectors mandated to be vaccinated.
The Ministry of Education surveyed schools and kura in December 2021 for a voluntary check-in but the national response rate was only 93.6 percent, meaning we cannot get a full picture of how many teaching staff were stood down.
But the survey found that 97.6 percent of registered teachers were vaccinated, compared with 95 percent of teacher aides and 95.5 percent of 'other staff'.
The end of vaccine passes means that staff at close contact businesses like hairdressers and restaurants will no longer have to be vaccinated by law.
It's difficult to get a clear picture of how many unvaccinated workers in private close contact businesses have been stood down due to the vaccine pass requirements but the Restaurant Association provided a glimpse.
A survey conducted in January found that 40 percent of members reported losing some staff as a result of the vaccination requirement. A total of 464 members responded to the survey and the average number of staff lost was about one to two.
The infrastructure for vaccine passes will be maintained for businesses that choose to use it and work is being done to include a mandatory third dose of the vaccine in the certificate system. The current passes will expire in June, so those who want to keep using them will need a booster.
"This is not the end, but in some ways, it is a new beginning," Ardern said in her speech.
Vaccine passes were a useful tool in the fight against Delta to drive up vaccination rates and protect the unvaccinated but with 95 percent of the eligible population at least double-dosed, the certificates are no longer needed, Ardern said.
Omicron has also changed the game. The highly-contagious variant could never be kept at bay and the Government accepted that but used the first two months of 2022 to drive up booster vaccinations.
Omicron is now widespread in the community with the average number of daily cases more than 17,000. That increased exposure to the virus has prompted the Government to adjust its approach.
"Everyone has had to give up something to make this work. And some more than others," Ardern said.
"Not everyone has agreed with the choices and trade-offs that have been made and sometimes that's had a knock-on effect. I imagine every family has had a difficult conversation with someone in their lives about COVID, vaccines, mandates or passes.
"But amongst what have sometimes been different opinions, there has been at least one unifying factor. Everyone has been safer, but everyone is also tired. Everyone is fatigued. And some are worried that means we don't care about each other anymore. I know that is not the case."
What other rules are changing?
The COVID Protection Framework introduced late last year, known as the 'traffic light' system, will remain in place, Ardern confirmed. However, the settings will change.
The most restrictive current 'red' setting has been in place since late January. While the 'seated and separated' rule will remain for hospitality venues, the indoor gathering limit will be expanded to 200 from this Friday. There will also no longer be gathering limits for outdoor venues.
Masks will still need to be worn in indoor public places but are no longer required outdoors.
At the less restrictive 'orange' level, all capacity limits are removed, but face masks are still required in many indoor settings. The liberal 'green' level remains the same.
Ardern said masks are important.
"I know they are new for us, and most people really dislike them - for good reason! But they are so critical, and one of the ways we can show care and respect for one another, including our immunocompromised community.
"Research published in the British Medical Journal late last year shows that mask-wearing reduces new Covid-19 cases by 53 percent. Masks matter."
There will also from now on be no requirement on businesses to ensure customers scan or sign-in and QR codes will no longer need to be displayed. It's because Omicron is widespread and individual cases are no longer being contact-traced.
"As everyone now knows, we have changed our testing and isolation requirements. The isolation period for both positive cases and household contacts remains at seven days," Ardern said.
"While we will keep that under regular review, there is no plan for us to contact trace more widely with the exception of high-risk environments like aged residential care facilities, or residential facilities for our most vulnerable.
"That means, the reason for using QR codes changes."
Ardern signalled a new beginning for New Zealand in the pandemic. But the restrictions being lifted will remain in the Government's back pocket should a new, more deadly variant of coronavirus emerge.
"If a variant arises in the world, that evades vaccines or is more deadly, contact tracing will once again provide a critical role. Please stand ready as a business to stand up QR codes again, or as a citizen to pull out your tracer app at a moment's notice," Ardern said.
"Don't remove the app from your phone just yet."