Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is back in Auckland to meet members of the business and social sector communities as well as to visit Western Springs College in the city's inner west.
Speaking with media, Ardern said Auckland will start at the red traffic light setting next week to make sure restrictions were eased in a careful way so case numbers don't balloon.
Once restrictions had been eased, the situation could be reassessed. "We do want to ease carefully so we will see the impact of those changes," she said.
Ardern said she understood the pandemic made the ability for businesses to plan difficult, but the Government wanted to get the domestic settings right so there wasn't an increase in cases and a further escalation of restrictions.
On the issue of rushing the traffic light system legislation through parliament, Ardern said while the Government was moving quickly there was still scrutiny.
"Had we not done what we have done, Auckland would face ongoing restrictions, and I don't think anyone would agree with that," she added.
The Government wouldn't make the change to the traffic light framework if it wasn't safe to do, Ardern said. The new system would offer better protection for the public and the country's high vaccination coverage offered the ability to manage Covid from a good position.
"Aucklanders have made all the difference. They've stayed home; they've got vaccinated; they have literally saved lives," she said.
Questioned on the turmoil ensnaring the National Party, Ardern said the country was in the middle of pandemic and she was not concentrating on issues relating to the opposition.
"The most important thing is ... to focus on the issues important to the New Zealand people, and that is the pandemic," she said. "I see this as a matter for the National Party."
On rapid antigen testing, Ardern said the cost was still to be determined but it was "a lot cheaper".
She said the tests were between $30 to $60 each. The Government would still use PCR testing in its response.
Ardern's visit comes as a raft of new Covid announcements have been made in recent days and weeks.
Auckland hairdressers today opened for the first time in more than three months while the rest of the country is now about a week away from moving into the new traffic light system to manage Covid.
Kiwis have also recently found out that from next year they will be able to return to the country and complete seven days isolation at home rather than in a managed isolation facility, provided they have been fully vaccinated and recently tested negative for the virus.
Her visit also comes as Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins today revealed New Zealand would revert to the alert level system if a new vaccine-resistant variant overwhelmed the country and the traffic light framework couldn't contain it.
Speaking to The AM Show, Hipkins said while the Government was absolutely committed to the traffic light system, a back-up plan would be reinstating the alert level system which is set to be dismantled next week.
The Government would have to revert to the alert level plan if it had a variant of the virus that was resistant to the vaccine, he said.
It was a possibility, but it's not what they thought would happen, he added.
Australians expected to flock to NZ
Hipkins also said tens of thousands of people would be coming across the border each week when it reopened to Australia in January.
He said it was difficult to model how many positive cases would come into New Zealand from international travellers.
"We have to accept the reality that the risk of Covid-19 around international travel is going to be progressively increasing over the next three to four months."
It was possible Australia would see surges as it reopened its borders internally. Hipkins said the fact they were double vaccinated didn't mean they couldn't be carrying Covid-19.
The Government had been looking at other highly vaccinated countries and some were still experiencing a lot of difficulty at the moment. "We want to try and do this in a way that's sustainable."
Phased return home
The Government's decision to finally set the dates when fully vaccinated Kiwis can fly home from overseas without entering MIQ was as much about a "groaning" administrative system as it was health risk, says one expert.
From January 17, fully vaccinated New Zealanders can travel from Australia without traversing MIQ, Hipkins announced at yesterday's 1pm Beehive briefing.
Fully vaccinated Kiwis from all other countries can arrive and bypass MIQ as of February 14.
These fully vaccinated international arrivals will still need to self-isolate for seven days at home in New Zealand, register a negative Covid-19 test on arrival and another before entering the community.
And all fully vaccinated foreign nationals can start arriving from April 30. But Hipkins said that date might change, or the overseas influx could be tailored by visa category.
Hipkins said the plan balanced the demands of multiple groups with the need to prevent a Covid-19 surge.
But the complexity and challenge of managing pandemic prevention systems explained much of the decision, public health expert Professor Michael Baker said.
"It's a mixture of a genuine desire to protect New Zealand from the ravages of the pandemic, and an element of administrative capacity."
It was logistically impossible to open up New Zealand before Christmas, Baker said, with recent challenges showing multiple systems under strain.
He said the pandemic prevention systems were "groaning" with the volume of demands, including on MIQ and vaccine passes.
All overseas arrivals not required to go into MIQ will need a negative pre-departure test, proof of full vaccination, and passenger declaration about travel history.
Opposition parties blasted the three-step travel announcement.
"This timetable to open New Zealand to the world is truly pathetic," National's Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said.
He said Hipkins had already admitted no fully vaccinated travellers from Australia for months tested positive for Covid, so there was no reason the transtasman bubble should not reopen now.
Act said Labour was "the Grinch who stole Christmas for no reason", depriving Kiwis overseas of a chance to come home.