The Green Party says the decision to end COVID-19 traffic light restrictions will leave people "wondering if the Government has given up".
Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the COVID-19 Protection Framework would be removed from 11:59pm that night. She said it was time "we take back control" rather than having the feeling the virus "dictates what happens to us".
"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," Ardern said.
"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 antiviral medicines, New Zealand is in a position to move forward."
Additionally, masks will no longer have to be worn in public, except in healthcare settings like hospitals, GPs, and aged residential care facilities. Some places, such as workplaces, special events, or marae may ask people to wear a mask, Ardern said, but this will be at their discretion and no longer a Government requirement.
All remaining Government vaccine mandates will end on September 26 and 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 aircrew also ends, and the requirement to test on day 0/1 and 5/6 will now just be encouraged.
The seven-day isolation period for COVID-19 cases will remain, but those who are just household contacts don't need to isolate.
However the Green Party is questioning the move, saying strong public health measures are more vital than ever.
"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," said the party's COVID-19 spokesperson 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."
Tuiono said the Government needs to ensure 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," he said.
"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."
Meanwhile, the ACT Party said it welcomed the end of COVID-19 restrictions and said the Government had clung to them for too long. But leader David Seymour said in order to "fully understand the damage they have done", a full and independent investigation into the Government's COVID-19 response is needed, as well as a plan to ensure New Zealand is prepared for the future.
"This announcement is six months too late. Labour's reluctance to move on has seen us fall further behind other countries," Seymour said.
"The comparisons with our closest neighbour are stark. Australia moved quicker than us in relaxing restrictions and as a result they have 38 percent of their pre-COVID international students contributing to their economy, while in New Zealand we only have 4.5 percent back.
"They've also returned to and exceeded their pre-COVID incoming migration levels at 107 percent of pre-COVID. New Zealand is at 52 percent of our pre-COVID incoming migration. This is why so many businesses are struggling under the weight of workforce shortages."
Seymour said it is "sensible" to remove isolation requirements for household contacts, but it would make further sense to shorten the isolation period for cases.
He also said that ACT's investigation into the Government's response 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," he said.
The investigation would include the effects of the Government's response on mental health, children's learning, crime, social cohesion, and trust in institutions, the timing of vaccine ordering and distribution, the fiscal and economic costs of the Government's response, and more.
"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," he said.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters also responded to the announcement and questioned the time it took to drop restrictions.
"Great. But why did it take the Government so long to drop masks and vaccine mandates?" he tweeted.
"What do they know now that they didn't know months ago - except that after three different Labour Ministers of Health the health system is in the worst state of crisis it has even been in."
Along with the end to most COVID-19 restrictions, COVID-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall also announced an additional purchase of 40,000 more anti-viral medicine courses that are 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," 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."