The country will move to the less restrictive orange traffic light pandemic response setting from 11.59pm tonight.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the decision today at the 1pm press conference, saying the “overall picture is a very positive one”.
Orange meant no indoor or outdoor capacity limits and seated rules removed, Hipkins said. The seven-day isolation requirement for positive cases remained.
Hipkins said despite the “significant relaxation of the settings, we’ve continued to see positive improvements in the overall trajectory”.
Hipkins said it was good to see an ongoing decline in the seven-day average for cases.
“It had been three weeks since changes to the traffic light system,” Hipkins said. “Since then mandates and vaccine passes had been removed. Despite this relaxation there had been a positive trajectory in the outbreak.”
At the orange setting people were encouraged to wear a mask when out and about, but were still required at some locations, Hipkins said.
Masks are still required at some gatherings and events, close-proximity businesses such as hairdressers and retail stores. Here’s what you can and can’t do in the orange traffic light setting.
Masks are also no longer required in schools, though they are again still encouraged. The ministry is providing further advice to schools about increasing ventilation.
“Ultimately, looking at a school by school basis, in some schools there is still a very strong justification for masks – but not all,” Hipkins said.
“It is very challenging for schools, it has proven to be one of the most challenging Covid-19 requirements.”
When comparing compulsory masks in supermarkets but not in nightclubs, Hipkins said it was a question of volume and there would be a lot more people on a daily basis in supermarkets than on a dancefloor.
Hipkins, who initially forgot the rules around mask-wearing in public places, said the guidance on masks was very clear and said he should have “refreshed” himself with the rules.
Asked if the decision was political, Hipkins said the case numbers drove the decision.
Asked about an acceptable rate of cases and death, Hipkins said there was no “acceptable” rate” and they would continue doing all they could to keep it as close to zero as possible.
The next review of the traffic light setting will be mid-May.
As winter looms, Hipkins warned of potential for influenza which could influence future decisions.
He urged people to continue getting vaccinated and boosted and said New Zealand could look forward to some “more normality”.
Hipkins said that the traffic light system may be used to handle other infectious disease outbreaks, along with Covid-19.
9495 new Covid cases in the community; 15 deaths
Meanwhile, there are 9495 new cases of Covid-19 in the community and 551 people are in hospital including 27 in ICU. There have been 15 deaths.
The 15 new deaths brings the total number of people who have died with Covid-19 to 531.
The seven-day average had declined by over 3000 cases, he said.
Of the 15 people who have died, one was from Northland, four from the Auckland region, one from Waikato, one from Bay of Plenty, one from Lakes DHB area, two from MidCentral, three from Nelson Marlborough and two from Canterbury.
One person was in their 40s, two in their 50s, two in their 60s, four in their 70s, five in their 80s and one over 90.
There were eight women and seven men.
Today’s seven-day rolling average sits at 9288 – down from 12,307 last Wednesday.
There were 47 new border cases. The total number of confirmed cases now sits at 793,740.
All today’s deaths, 11 occurred in the past two days with the remaining four happening in the past eight days.
Of the 551 people in hospital, 31 are in Northland, 91 in Waitemata, 92 in Counties Manukau, 80 in Auckland, 57 in Waikato, 24 in Bay of Plenty, 4 in 24, two in Tairāwhiti, 12 in Hawke’s Bay, 12 in Taranaki, five in Whanganui, 19 in MidCentral, one in Wairarapa, 26 in Hutt Valley, 14 in Capital and Coast, 10 in Nelson Marlborough, 38 in Canterbury, six in South Canterbury, one in West Coast and 26 in Southern DHB.
There were 20 per cent of people in hospital who were unvaccinated or not eligible, four per cent who were partially vaccinated, 30 per cent who were double vaccinated and 44 per cent who were boosted. The vaccination status of 2 per cent of cases was unknown.
The Omicron strain arrived in New Zealand in December and has since displaced the less infectious Delta variant and killed hundreds of people.
In the past fortnight, new Covid-19 case numbers have generally fallen nationwide.
But the health system still faces pressure from the pandemic, and only about 1500 booster shots are being administered daily.
Today’s announcement precedes the Easter weekend and follows the opening of borders overnight to Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Auckland business leaders have called for the city to move to orange today, regardless of what happens with the rest of the country.
Some Aucklanders have been working from home since August, when the Delta lockdown started.
And with many offices empty or depleted under the current red traffic light setting, some downtown businesses dependent on city workers have suffered.
Orange means no limits for indoor gatherings, no seated-and-separated requirements, and no masks when eating or drinking.
But vaccination coverage should lessen the risk of super-spreader events.
And many people will have natural immunity after hundreds of thousands of people caught Omicron in recent months.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday schools were able to require masks if they felt they were needed.
University of Auckland paediatrician Dr Jin Russell called for a mask mandate in schools for the orange setting, and for those rules to be reviewed after winter.
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