Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised a phased end to Covid restrictions in Auckland, beginning Tuesday night.
Ardern has this afternoon promised a three-step plan, which moves away from the current elimination strategy. Ardern acknowledged the elimination strategy was coming to an end, saying it had served New Zealand well.
"While we're transitioning from our current strategy into a new way of doing things, we're not there yet. We need more people fully vaccinated," Ardern said.
For live written coverage of today's 4pm announcement, please click here.
From midnight Tuesday, bubbles will be able to mix, but only outdoors and with some restrictions still in place.
"From 11.59pm Tuesday, Auckland will remain in alert level 3 but several key changes will occur.
"People will be able to connect with loved ones outdoors with no more than two households at a time, up to a maximum of 10 people; early childhood education will return for all; and people can move around Auckland for recreation such as beach visits and hunting," Ardern said.
The second step will allow more retail to open, under a hybrid level 2.
"At step two retail will open their doors, with the usual measures of wearing face masks and keeping up physical distancing; public facilities such as pools and zoos will open; and the number of people who can meet outdoors will increase to 25," Ardern said.
Ardern did not give a date for when this "step" would begin.
The final step would be similar to what is currently known as "delta level 2".
"Step three will bring back those higher-risk settings. Hospitality will open – seated, separated and with a limit of 50; close contact businesses like hairdressers will also open with mask use and physical distancing; and gatherings will also then extend to 50," Ardern said.
"Cabinet will review each step weekly to ensure it's safe to move before confirming the next step. The wage subsidy will continue to be available.
"Public health advice also sets out that schools at this stage will be able to return after school holidays on the 18th of October with the final decision to be made on that closer to the time," she said.
The rest of the country will stay at level 2, but the 100-limit cap on hospitality venues is removed. The requirement for customers to be seated and separated with physical distancing remains in place.
The decision to loosen restrictions was made despite persistently high and increasing case numbers.
The strategy is similar to those adopted by Australian states like New South Wales or countries like the United Kingdom, which tied decreasing restrictions to higher vaccination rates.
The significant difference in this case is that while case numbers are increasing in New Zealand, they are still incredibly low by international standards.
Ardern equivocated on whether this meant the Government's elimination strategy had come to an end - she said that the strategy was still to have strict health measures in place to control the virus.
Ardern said the elimination strategy had served the country well.
"Just to be clear, the elimination strategy has served us incredibly well and was the right thing to do for New Zealand," she said.
She said the Government had always intended to pivot towards a strategy that allowed more freedom.
"Over time we were always going to have to move to a place -and intended to move to a case, where vaccines helped us," Ardern said.
The relaxation of restrictions means much more mingling outdoors.
Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and officials advised that there is much lower risk when bubbles mix outdoors.
The announcement has sent politics into a tailspin with National, Act, and the Greens all criticising the decision.
National leader Judith Collins said the elimination backdown showed an "incoherent and timid approach to the Covid pandemic".
"Today's announcement confirms what most New Zealanders – especially Aucklanders – have come to learn only too well over the past seven weeks of lockdown: The Government is completely out of ideas," Collins said.
"Elimination has failed but, while the Prime Minister says we've now moved to a 'transition' stage, the strategy is fundamentally unchanged," she said.
Collins described the new three-step plan as "vague".
Act leader David Seymour agreed the strategy was vague.
"There's been no contrition, no certainty and no end game," Seymour said.
"To summarise the Prime Minister's "road map" Auckland will go to Level 2 gradually at an unspecified timeframe. And there will be picnics.
"Jacinda Arden should admit she was wrong, give us a proper plan and let Aucklanders know when the finish line is in sight," he said.
Co-leader Marama Davidson said that the roadmap risked people's safety.
"Elimination has protected thousands of lives in Aotearoa. We have to stay the course to keep everyone safe. Now is not the right time to change our approach, particularly when so many of our vulnerable communities are still at risk," Davidson said.
Davidson said elimination was "still possible if we work together to stop the spread".
"We need a clear coordinated approach which prioritises our most vulnerable right now. We have seen the tragic consequences overseas when restrictions are eased too early," Davidson said.
She said there were "serious risks for our vulnerable communities – including Māori and Pasifika, as well as people with underlying health conditions – who have disproportionately been impacted by lockdowns".