Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern announces end to traffic light COVID-19 restrictions

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced the end to New Zealand's traffic light system and most mask requirements.

From Tuesday, the COVID-19 traffic light system is no longer and masks will only be required in healthcare and aged care settings. Only COVID-19-positive individuals will have to isolate for seven days from now on. There are no longer isolation requirements for household contacts.

All Government vaccine mandates will come to an end on September 26, while vaccination requirements for incoming travellers and air crews are being removed.

While this marks an end to most COVID-19 requirements, leave support payments will still be available for unwell Kiwis.

Newshub's live updates have finished.

4:55pm - Prof Michael Plank from Te Pūnaha Matatini says with COVID-19 moving from an "acute threat" to an "endemic disease", it's understandable some interventions used to flatten the curve "are less effective as we move into the next phase".

"Blanket measures such as mask mandates in places like retail, schools and workplaces are likely to have a marginal effect on the number of infections in the long-term. The reason is that, at any given point in time, the large majority of the population will be immune to the virus and so the majority of masks will be having little or no effect.

"Masks do have downsides and it’s important to weigh those against the benefits they provide. Many countries have lifted mask mandates without experiencing a significant increase in sickness or death as a result.

"However, this needs to be balanced against the fact that mask wearing still affords protection to individuals who are at higher risk. It makes sense to target measures to high-risk settings such as healthcare and aged residential care. Mask requirements may also need to be re-introduced for example if a new variant threatens to cause a major wave.

"Overall today’s changes look like a reasonable response to the current situation. But we should use this period of relative respite to focus on lasting public health measures like improving indoor air quality, better sick pay entitlement so everyone can afford to stay home when they are sick, and continued investment in vaccine development and delivery. These are sustainable measures that can largely happen unnoticed by the general population but will deliver health benefits more broadly than just for COVID-19."

4:50pm - Here is Auckland Mayor Phil Goff's reaction to the announcement: 

Mayor Phil Goff says the government's decision to remove the country's COVID-19 Protection Framework (known as the traffic light system) reflects the significant reduction in risk posed by the virus due to rapidly falling infections.

The traffic light system will be removed from midnight on 12 September, including masking rules; however, some mask requirements will remain in sectors such as healthcare where there is continuing need for them.

Mayor Goff says, "The traffic light system has helped Kiwis to manage the risk to themselves, their families, and our communities for nearly a year.

"However, with case numbers dropping steadily and most people having a level of protection due to vaccination and often partial immunity from prior infection, the time has come for New Zealanders to make their own assessment on measures they need to take to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19.

"Mask mandates and other interventions have been effective in helping ensure New Zealand had among the lowest levels of hospitalisation and fatalities from COVID in the world. As the risk from the virus has receded, however, community protection measures can be eased, and people enabled to determine for themselves what level of protection they personally require.

"While the strongest restrictions designed to curb the impact of the pandemic were phased out some time ago, including the restrictions on entry to New Zealand, the latest move largely lifting the restrictions brings New Zealand into line with many other similar countries. It will hopefully further facilitate the movement of tourists, international students, and skilled migrants into New Zealand," Phil Goff said.

4:40pm - Here are the key points from the announcement:

  • The COVID-19 Protection Framework ends at 11.59pm tonight, Monday 12 September
  • All mask wearing requirements removed, except in healthcare and aged care facilities
  • Only COVID-19 positive individuals required to isolate for seven days, household contacts no longer need to 
  • All Government vaccine mandates to end in two weeks on 26 September
  • Removal of all vaccination requirements for incoming travellers and air crew
  • Support for business and workers to continue through leave support payments
  • All New Zealanders aged 65 and over, and Māori aged 50 and over to have automatic access to COVID anti-virals if they test positive

4:35pm - BusinessNZ chief executive says it's encouraging that the Government is allowing individual businesses to make decisions over policies on their premises.

"No two sites are the same and each business can decide what works for their own environment when it comes to minimising the spread of Covid-19," he said.

"Businesses are highly incentivised to keep employees, customers and visitors safe in order to continue operating.

"The traffic light system has been one tool in the toolbox for managing the spread of Covid-19. But like the alert system before it, traffic lights have become an outdated mode of operating in the current environment.

"As we’ve learned over the past three years, New Zealand’s Covid response has needed to flex as the pandemic evolved. Taking into account public health, the economy and people’s accepted level of risk has been a constant balancing act.

"Sometimes they got it right, other times we were left wanting by Government decisions."

4:30pm - Retail NZ has welcomed the "return to normality" with the end to the traffic light settings:

"After over two years of being at the forefront of COVID-19 rules, alert level changes, low foot traffic, and nonsensical mask rules retailers across New Zealand will be pleased with today’s revised approach", says Retail NZ Chief Executive Greg Harford.

"The retail sector has been calling for the revision of COVID-19 restrictions, and removal of mandatory mask requirements due to significantly low compliance from the public and high levels of instore aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour."

"The revision today largely brings New Zealand in line with most of the rest of the world. We applaud the removal of requirement for household contacts to isolate. However, we encourage the Government to review the isolation period for COVID-19 cases within the next four weeks. Other countries have a far more dynamic approach of review and continue to revise isolation periods with most between three to five days as best practice."

"As we move to a greater sense of normality, Retail NZ would like to remind Kiwis that the retail environment is safe and encourages everyone to get back instore and #ShopNice.

"Unfortunately, retailers across Aotearoa continue to experience significantly high levels of in-store violence, aggression and anti-social behaviour. Retail NZ is encouraging New Zealanders to take a moment and breathe instead of involving retailer workers in an undue aggressive or tense situation. Kiwis will continue to see Shop Nice posters throughout retail stores, social media content and advertising, as a reminder of the impact undue actions can have on workers"

Retail NZ suggests that Kiwis can take a few key steps to make retail workers feel supported:

  1. Treat retail workers with respect

  2. Use polite and non-threatening language at all times

  3. Saying hello, kia ora, good morning 

  4. Smile and follow shop rules

  5. Say thank you to your local retailer

4:25pm - Here is the ACT Party's response to the Government's announcement:

"ACT welcomes the end of COVID restrictions the Government has clung on to for far too long, but in order to fully understand the damage they have done we need a full and independent investigation into the Government's COVID response, and a plan to ensure we're prepared for the future," says ACT Leader David Seymour.

"This announcement is six months too late. Labour's reluctance to move on has seen us fall further behind other countries.

"The comparisons with our closest neighbour are stark. Australia moved quicker than us in relaxing restrictions and as a result they have 38 per cent of their pre-COVID international students contributing to their economy, while in New Zealand we only have 4.5 per cent back. They've also returned to and exceeded their pre-COVID incoming migration levels at 107 per cent of pre-COVID. New Zealand is at 52 per cent of our pre-COVID incoming migration. This is why so many businesses are struggling under the weight of workforce shortages.

"It is sensible to take away isolation requirements for household contacts, but it would also make sense to shorten the isolation period for cases. Keeping people locked in their houses longer than is necessary imposes costs to both them and the economy. We should adopt Singapore's policy of 72 hour isolations, a negative test and you're out.

"The impacts of our response have been immense. We have reason to believe there will be significant impacts on our children's educations, mental health, benefit dependency, crime, social cohesion, business strength and infrastructure for years and years to come.

"Under Labour, the only illumination we get is from gaslighting. It pretends against all rational evidence that its actions aren't the reason our health system is crumbling and our businesses are closing.

"New Zealand is too small for an objective investigation. ACT's investigation would lean on experts from a range of countries that did things well, and not so well, to give an honest review. We would ask Taiwanese, Swedish, and Australian experts, for example, to be part of the investigation. This will inform a publicly available pandemic plan.

Its terms of reference will include, but not be limited to:

  • The effects of the Government's response on mental health, children's learning, and crime

  • The effects of the Government's response on social cohesion and trust in institutions

  • The fiscal and economic costs of the Government's response, including the use of unconventional monetary policy

  • The cost of Quality Adjusted Life Years saved from COVID in comparison with other challenges

  • Compliance with the Bill of Rights, and whether restrictions were always justifiable in a free and democratic society

  • Absorption of technologies such as for testing and tracing, into the response

  • Relationships with private sector partners including technology suppliers, GPs, and community vaccination centres

  • The quality of advice and the Government's attention to advice from a range of departments other than Health, such as the Ministry of Education and Treasury

  • The timing of vaccine ordering and distribution

"The investigation is not simply about learning what Labour did wrong. It is about working out what we need to do right. There will be another pandemic. Probably not this year, hopefully not in the next decade, but almost certainly in our lifetime. In the future, it could save New Zealand billions of dollars in costly mistakes. We literally cannot afford to repeat Labour's handling of this pandemic.

"We can't have a lost generation who suffers due to the impacts of our COVID response, without even looking at what we could have done better and ensuring we don't make the same mistakes again. While other parties are focused on the next election, ACT is focused on the next generation."

4:20pm - The Green Party has reacted to the Government's announcement:

Strong public health measures are more vital than ever, the Green Party says as the Government removes many longstanding COVID-19 restrictions.  

"Today's decision will leave people wondering if the Government has given up. The near complete removal of longstanding protections will be of considerable concern for immunocompromised and disabled whānau whose wellbeing should be at the centre of the Government's response," says the Green Party's spokesperson for COVID-19, Teanau Tuiono. 

"What is certain is that COVID and other respiratory illnesses are here to stay. We will be living with new waves of the infection for many years to come. Focus must immediately shift to slowing the spread of COVID-19 through long-term protective public health measures, alongside equal access to all future vaccines. 

"The risk people face from long-COVID and the potential for new, more infectious variants hasn't changed. The Government must invest now in long-term protections. This is particularly vital for ensuring that our disabled and immunocompromised whānau can continue to go about their normal lives without putting their health at greater risk.

"Public health measures work best when they become part of our everyday lives. As a minimum the Government has to be able to guarantee clean air inside buildings through air quality monitoring, strong ventilation standards, and air purification. 

"In the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, the Government didn't leave it up to individuals to decide how safe they wanted to make their homes and workplaces. It reviewed the Building Code and made changes that would improve the safety of everyone. Now is the time to do the same for COVID. 

"The Government must also make sure there is ongoing support for Māori and Pacific communities to roll out boosters and new vaccines so everyone is protected equally.

"This needs to be part of a community-centred approach where those who are most at risk, including disabled and immunocompromised people, are at the table for making decisions about how to respond to future waves of COVID. There is no doubt that COVID hit some communities far worse than others. Living with COVID could make these inequalities even worse if we do not put the health of those most at risk at the centre of our response.

"The single biggest lesson from this pandemic is to act early, decisively and globally to prevent problems becoming much bigger. With case numbers coming down and the pressure easing, the best thing the Government can do right now is prepare for all possible scenarios for dealing with this unpredictable virus," says Teanau Tuiono.

4:15pm - Ardern says this coming summer will be the first summer in years with certainty. She says there won't be the 'what if?' or concerns that events will be cancelled. 

She says there has been a mental toll of the pandemic. Ardern doesn't want people's wellbeing to be the price of COVID and while the worst of the pandemic is over, the remaining challenges must be tackled.

4:10pm - Here's a statement from the Prime Minister:

The COVID-19 Protection Framework, also known as the traffic light system, will be removed from 11.59pm tonight, Monday 12 September, so all New Zealanders can continue to move forward with certainty, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

"It's time to safely turn the page on our COVID-19 management, and live without the extraordinary measures we have previously used," Jacinda Ardern said.

"Today marks a milestone in our response. Finally, rather than feeling that COVID dictates what happens to us, our lives, and our futures, we take back control.

"For the first time in two years we can approach summer with the much needed certainty New Zealanders and business need, helping to drive greater economic activity critical to our economic recovery.

"The most recent health advice now tells us that with the lowest cases and hospitalisations since February, our population well vaccinated, and expanded access to anti-viral medicines, New Zealand is in a position to move forward. 

"You will no longer be required by Government to wear a mask anywhere, except in healthcare settings like hospitals, GPs and aged residential care facilities.

"Some places, such as workplaces, special events, or marae may ask you to wear a mask, but this will be at their discretion and no longer a Government requirement. Please respect those who choose to keep wearing masks as a form of protection.  

"All remaining Government vaccine mandates will end in two weeks on 26 September. It will now be an employer's discretion as to whether they require their workforce to be vaccinated.

"Vaccination requirements for all travellers arriving into New Zealand including air crew also ends, and the requirement to test on day 0/1 and 5/6 will now just be encouraged.

"Our 7 day isolation period for COVID cases will remain.

"However, the 7 day isolation period will now only be required for those who test positive for COVID-19. Their household contacts will only be asked to undertake a daily RAT test before going about their life as normal.

"In short, we now move on to a simple two requirements system of masks in healthcare settings and 7 days isolation for positive cases only," Jacinda Ardern said.

COVID-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall also announced today a significant additional purchase of 40,000 more anti-viral medicine courses, expected to enter New Zealand in the next few days. 

"We are giving greater access to anti-viral medicines for New Zealanders, and have secured agreements that provide a significant boost to our supply for the long term," Ayesha Verrall said. 

"So now, anyone over the age of 65, and Māori and Pacific people over the age of 50, or anyone who meets Pharmac requirements, can access the treatment in the early stages of contracting the virus.

"This means more than double the number of New Zealanders will be able to access these medicines if they need them than previously," Ayesha Verrall said.

"There is no question – thousands of lives have been saved by the efforts of Kiwis. Be it iwi and Maori health providers, Pacifica organisations, aged care providers, businesses or the sacrifices of New Zealanders separated from loved ones, everyone played a part.

"So today, I say again to everyone, from the bottom of my heart, thank you," Jacinda Ardern said.

4:05pm - The Prime Minister has just arrived at the press conference alongside COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. Jacinda Ardern begins by speaking her week ahead, including travelling to London and New York, and the public holiday.

Ardern announces the end to the traffic light system and "claim back the certainty we have all lose over the last three years". She speaks about the low death rate in New Zealand and how thousands of lives have been saved by communities' efforts.

4pm - We've just received this statement from Pharmac about simplifying criteria for COVID-19 antiviral treatments:

Te Pātaka Whaioranga - Pharmac has confirmed today that it is simplifying the access criteria for the three antiviral treatments it funds for treating early COVID-19. From Wednesday 14 September 2022, the number of people who can access these treatments will more than double.  

"Pharmac widened access to COVID-19 antivirals in July 2022, ensuring that the people at highest risk would have access to these treatments," says Pharmac's chief medical officer, Dr David Hughes. "We are pleased to confirm that from this Wednesday even more New Zealanders could benefit from these treatments."

"The access criteria for the antiviral treatments for COVID-19 will be widened to include a larger priority population of people at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection," says Dr Hughes. "This will include all people aged 65 years and over, and Māori and Pacific peoples over the age of 50. Other people below these ages would need to have three high-risk medical conditions to be eligible."

"Pharmac has been working closely with the supplier of Paxlovid, Pfizer to secure more stock as the COVID-19 environment continues to evolve. An additional 40,000 courses have been ordered and are expected to arrive in New Zealand in the next few weeks. We are confident we will be able to order more if we need to, but with the reducing COVID-19 cases and arrival of more stock, we can simplify the criteria and widen access to these treatments."

"We expect that simplifying the criteria may remove some of the barriers to access these antivirals and make it easier for healthcare practitioners to consider treatment options for people in their community. As COVID-19 is still present in Aotearoa we would like to see as many people as possible stay well for summer," concludes Dr Hughes.

3:50pm - In around 10 minutes, Prime Minister Ardern will speak about the future of New Zealand's COVID-19 restrictions. You can watch a livestream of her press conference in the video component above.

She's also likely to speak about the public holiday just announced to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II. You can read more about that here

3:40pm - Robertson also announced earlier that the Government would be reviewing whether vaccination mandates in the health and disability sector are still required.

"We will be considering the issue of the few remaining workforce-related mandates that we do have," he said.

"I would want to say that the health workforce, along with the education workforce and others, were calling on us to bring in mandates at the time that we did. It was the right decision to bring those in in terms of where we were at with vaccination status and the concern within those workforce settings. We now have to reassess where we are right now today."

3:35pm - Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson spoke to AM ahead of the Cabinet meeting. He said ministers would be reviewing whether the current settings are still right for the situation.

"I think what we want to do is what we said we would do which is get ourselves through winter and we've done very well… the hospital system came under a bit of strain but it did cope and our health professionals did an extraordinary job of getting us through that so now's the time to say, 'What does the system that is fit for today look like?'

"We've tweaked our system the whole way through to be proportionate to the situation we are in so we will work through the public health advice, we will work through the broader advice which includes economic advice and then we will come to our decision today."

3:30pm - Kia ora, good afternoon, and welcome to Newshub's live updates of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's COVID-19 announcement. She will speak in the Beehive Theatrette at 4pm following Cabinet's meeting.

It's widely expected that Ardern will announce the end of New Zealand's traffic light system and that most COVID-19 restrictions will be dumped, bar those in very high-risk settings.