New Zealand drops mask and vaccine mandates in sweeping Covid changes | New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern has declared it “time to safely turn the page” on New Zealand’s Covid-19 restrictions, scrapping all but a handful of remaining rules.

New Zealand, which once eliminated the virus through the toughest pandemic rules in the world, has made relaxations similar to Australian or European conditions.

Mask-wearing will no longer be mandatory in public places, and the last vaccine mandates will be ditched in two weeks under sweeping changes announced by the prime minister on Monday.

However, the government is sticking by a seven-day isolation period for people with virus, defying calls to shorten isolation to five days.

New Zealand suffered a major Omicron wave during winter that killed more Kiwis than any other outbreak of the pandemic.

The death toll is now 1950 people, growing from about 50 at the turn of the year, and 500 four months ago.

However, both case numbers and the government’s key metric – hospitalisations – have dropped sharply in recent weeks, giving the government confidence to move past onerous restrictions.

“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,” 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 anti-viral medicines, New Zealand is in a position to move forward.

“We move forward with confidence knowing that we’re not going to use those measures in the future.”

New Zealand held on to mask-wearing rules in many places – including retail, public transport and facilities and airports – through winter, when the “twindemic” of Covid-19 and influenza put severe strain on the health system.

From Tuesday, mask-wearing will only be compulsory in healthcare settings, excepting mental health services. Also gone are the few remaining vaccine mandates, for workers and inbound travellers. Tests on arrival in New Zealand are no longer required but encouraged.

While the isolation requirement for Covid-positive Kiwis has remained, the government has scrapped a requirement for household contacts to also do so.

The government’s retention of restrictions in recent months has drawn criticism from the opposition and from business. Kiwis were increasingly fed up with many rules, especially mask-wearing, with widespread non-compliance, particularly outside Wellington.

Ardern said she was grateful to New Zealanders’ endurance during the pandemic.

“This will be the first summer in three years where there won’t be the question of what we will and what won’t be cancelled because of Covid cases,” she said.

“Where our borders are fully reopened and there isn’t a fear of being separated or stranded. The summer where we have certainty. So today, I say again to everyone, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

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