• The Covid-19 Protection Framework, also known as the traffic light system, will end at 11.59pm tonight.
• All mask wearing requirements removed, except in healthcare and aged care facilities.
• Only those who test positive for Covid-19 are required to isolate for seven days, household contacts no longer need to.
• All Government vaccine mandates will end in two weeks on September 26.
• Today's announcement means the removal of all vaccination requirements for incoming travellers and air crew.
All of the country's main Covid-19 protections – including vaccine mandates and most mask requirements – will soon be dropped, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.
The Covid-19 Protection Framework, or traffic light system, will end from 11.59pm tonight.
This means masks will no longer be required, aside from in healthcare and aged-care facilities.
Ardern said today's announcement was 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."
"There is no question – thousands of lives have been saved by the efforts of Kiwis.
"Be it iwi and Māori health providers, Pasifika 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."
Ardern said the decisions were based on health advice, with case numbers and hospitalisations the lowest they'd been since February. Vaccination levels were also high and there was increased access to anti-viral medicines, she said.
The Government would no longer require people to wear masks, however some places – including workplaces – could still request people to wear masks.
They would also be encouraged in confined spaces and among vulnerable people.
Ardern said they did not want to ask more from people than what the evidence supported.
Contacts of Covid-19 cases will no longer need to isolate. Only positive individuals will still need to isolate for seven days.
All Government vaccine mandates will end on September 26, but employers can continue their own mandates.
Travellers and air crew will also no longer be required to be vaccinated before entering the country. Testing requirements for new arrivals will also now only be encouraged.
Support will continue for workers who need to take leave due to contracting Covid-19.
All New Zealanders aged 65 and over, and Māori aged 50 and over will have automatic access to Covid anti-virals if they test positive.
Household contacts of cases would need to do a daily rapid antigen test.
With high vaccination rates and a large number of people having had the virus, it was now safe to end the vaccine mandates, Ardern said.
Testing would still be available at the border and surveillance to identify new variants.
"In short, we now move on to a simple two requirements system of masks in healthcare settings and seven days isolation for positive cases only," Ardern said.
Moving to this two-step system, Ardern said mask requirements could be "dialled up" if demanded.
Ardern said isolation requirements for cases continued to protect the most vulnerable.
There would continue to be monthly "check-ins" on these two settings, Ardern said. There was a chance of cases increasing again before the end of the year.
Ardern said however she hoped it would be the first summer where the "Covid anxiety" started to heal.
She said she'd seen the mental health impacts of Covid, and while the worst of the pandemic was over, now was time to tackle what it left behind, she said.
Ardern said this decision was about giving New Zealanders back certainty that had been "taken away by Covid".
New Zealanders could now move forward with confidence the measures used would not be reintroduced, the PM said.
Ardern said looking back there were decisions made with imperfect information. But she said those decisions were always made with the best intentions.
She said there were lessons to be learned and the Government was now getting advice on what that process would look like.
'Right time' to end framework - Verrall
Covid Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said now was the "right time" to remove the Covid-19 Protection Framework based on expert advice.
To those more vulnerable, Verrall said they made these decisions because the risk now was much lower. There was also more treatments available along with free masks and testing.
Verrall said 40,000 more anti-viral medicine courses had been purchased, expected to arrived in the next few days.
"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."
Verrall said work continued on plans for how to deal with new variants.
Verrall said community surveillance would continue at low levels. Border testing would be voluntary and any positive cases detected there would be encouraged to do a PCR test as well to determine the variant.
Announcement 'six months too late' - Act
Act Leader David Seymour welcomed the end of Covid restrictions which "the Government has clung on to for far too long".
He called for an independent investigation into the Government's Covid response to fully understand the damage the restrictions had caused.
"This announcement is six months too late. Labour's reluctance to move on has seen us fall further behind other countries.
"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."
Retail NZ welcomes return to normality
Retail NZ has welcomed today's decision by the Government to move New Zealand into a sense of normality by removing the vast majority of Covid-19 rules and to manage the pandemic through a revised approach.
"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 in-store 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 the 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."
Harford said other countries "have a far more dynamic approach" of reviewing and continuing to revise isolation periods, with most between three to five days as best practice.
Greens: Decision will leave people wondering if Govt has given up
Green Party's spokesman for Covid-19, Teanau Tuiono said strong public health measures remained essential and today's decision would leave people wondering if the Government has given up.
The near complete removal of long-standing protections would be of considerable concern for immunocompromised and disabled whānau whose wellbeing should be at the centre of the Government's response, Tuiono said.
"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."
As a minimum, the Government had to be able to guarantee clean air inside buildings through air quality monitoring, strong ventilation standards, and air purification.
"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."
'Good time' to review measures - expert
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said that, with cases, hospitalisations, and deaths at their lowest since February, it was a "good time" to review what measures were needed.
"Covid-19 is shifting from being an acute threat to an endemic disease. That doesn't mean it's harmless or that we can forget about it," he said.
"But it does mean that some of the interventions that were crucial to flattening the curve and protecting health system capacity in the acute phase are less effective as we move into the next phase."
Plank said blanket measures such as mask mandates in places like retail, schools and workplaces were 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," he said.
"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."
But Plank said this needed to be balanced against the fact mask wearing still gave 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," he said.
"Mask requirements may also need to be reintroduced for example if a new variant threatens to cause a major wave."
Overall, Plank said the changes appeared to be "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," he said.
"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."
Auckland mayor reacts to end of Covid era
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said today's announcement reflected the significant reduction in risk posed by the virus due to rapidly falling infections.
"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.
Goff said mask mandates and other interventions had 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," Goff said.
Public holiday to mourn Queen announced
Cabinet also met today to consider a date for a memorial service and public holiday to mark Queen Elizabeth's death.
New Zealand will mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II with a one-off public holiday on September 26.
Ardern will travel to London later this week ahead of the Queen's funeral next Monday.
When asked about the change in monarch and the question over NZ possibly becoming a republic, Ardern said this had gone on for many years and she had made her view "many times".
She said she saw New Zealand going in that direction in her lifetime but not "any time soon".
She had never sensed any urgency to have that conversation.
There were 1149 new Covid cases reported today after numbers dipped below 1000 over the weekend.
The seven-day rolling average of cases today is 1480 while last Monday it was 1778, the Ministry of Health said in today's update.
There are 225 people in hospital with the virus, including three in intensive care. The seven-day rolling average of hospitalisations today is 241; last Monday, it was 273.
A further six Covid-related deaths have been reported, including three people aged in their 80s and three in their 90s.
Earlier today, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said Cabinet would consider the health and economic assessments in making the decision.
"Our approach has been tweaked and changed all the way through in response to things to be proportionate, and so Cabinet will look at that today and make our decision.
"We have to plan for variants into the future but we also have to acknowledge that through winter our health system came under a lot of strain but we made it through.
"But we've just to make sure that we've got a fit-for-purpose response to the place we find ourselves in now."
The Covid-19 Response laws giving the Government and director general of health special powers to make rules for the Covid-19 response all have to be renewed regularly.
The traffic light system was set up under the Epidemic Preparedness (Covid-19) Notice 2020 which has been renewed by the Prime Minister every three months since March 2020. The Notice is required to be able to make orders for the Covid-19 response.
That was last renewed in June and is due to expire on September 16 unless renewed again this week – something that is usually done a few days in advance.