The Government will decide today whether to scrap the whole traffic light system and other Covid-19 orders, a decision that would see the remaining restrictions such as mask mandates gone by Wednesday and end more than two years of Covid-19 rules.
The Herald understands Cabinet will be deciding on a recommendation to scrap the traffic-light system altogether rather than tweaking the settings or moving to green.
If it goes ahead, it would come into effect as soon as Wednesday – when the main legal instrument under which the Covid-19 orders are issued will expire if Cabinet decides not to renew it.
That Epidemic Preparedness (Covid-19) Notice 2020 is one of the over-arching legal instruments under which the Government and health authorities have exercised special powers in the Covid-19 response: including the traffic light system. If not renewed, all orders associated with it will also lapse.
The notice has been renewed every three months since it was put in place in March 2020 and requires the Prime Minister to state she is satisfied the effects of the outbreak are likely to continue to disrupt essential governmental and business activity in New Zealand "significantly."
That decision is based on consultation with the Minister of Health and the director-general of health. It is understood Cabinet was still getting some advice from health officials, but the recommendation to Cabinet is that it could end.
Ministers have increasingly questioned the ongoing effectiveness and palatability of Covid-19 restrictions, and pointed to waning public compliance and support for measures such as masking, and whether that has dropped to the extent that the rules are futile.
If Cabinet gives it the nod, Covid-19 would be treated similar to the way the flu is managed.
Health officials could still require masks in public health settings, such as hospitals, and advise their use elsewhere such as on public transport. However, the Herald was told it would otherwise be up to businesses and providers to decide whether to adopt their own mask rules.
For example, Air NZ would decide whether to continue requiring masks on flights.
The Government will retain some capacity to quickly restart a response in the case of a new and vigorous variant and is working on longer-term proposals for future pandemic management.
Retail NZ Chief Executive Greg Harford told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking that he wants to see the end of mandatory mask requirements in retail stores.
He said two thirds were either ignoring the mandate and not wearing a mask or claiming they had an exemption.
He also said police were not enforcing the $4000 fine for not wearing a mask.
"The whole thing is nonsense and the sooner we can move beyond that the better," said Harford.
Today's decision follows a review by Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall of the Covid-19 framework.
Ardern has been signalling for some months that the traffic light system could be scrapped at the end of winter, after the Omicron outbreak peaked and the pressure on hospitals eased.
Last week she told The Country that decisions on things such as mask mandates would be announced this week: "we are looking in much better shape than we were even six to eight weeks ago, so it's just looking at whether or now we are in a position to start making some changes there."
In a media briefing last week, Ministry of Health deputy director-general of health Dr Andrew Old said he would not discuss the advice given to the Government on its review. However, he said we were now at "a new stage" of the virus.
Case numbers and hospitalisations are at the lowest levels since February, Old said. Yesterday saw 1793 new cases with 260 people in hospital, including five in intensive care.
The seven-day rolling average of cases had fallen by 27 per cent from a week ago, and hospitalisations were down 29 per cent, Old said. The number of virus-related deaths was also declining.
While it was difficult to model accurately what might happen next year or under a new variant, Old said he was optimistic about the outlook for the summer months. He indicated that vaccinations, rather than rules, would be used to do the heavy lifting to keep people safe into 2023.
He said decisions on second boosters for under-50s were due soon and pointed to improved Omicron-resistant vaccines. He also pointed to countries such as the Netherlands, which was running a vaccination programme to pre-empt the winter season, as examples to follow.
Covid-19 health experts had mixed views on the issue.
Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa co-lead Michael Plank said Covid-19 was evolving from being an acute threat to an endemic disease, similar to those like influenza that the country managed.
He felt a more realistic approach to the virus was required. Plank said recent modelling suggested a gradual approach to relaxing measures preventing transmission was appropriate, but warned against abandoning them completely.
"I think we need to keep the tools in the toolbox and be prepared that we may need to use some of them in the future if the situation warrants it."
University of Otago epidemiologist Nick Wilson said the Government should replace it with an improved framework, but was not optimistic.
"Governments, they want their votes and they will often sacrifice what is the right thing to do from a science and public health perspective because they want to win an election."
He said the threat of future outbreaks necessitated a continuation of mask mandates for healthcare, aged care and public transport, alongside nationwide investment in ventilation.
"The Government should take this opportunity to have a proper alert level system and to design it carefully and not having this constant tweaking that's been happening.
He urged the Government to retain the legislative ability to reintroduce measures including vaccine mandates and border closures, should they become necessary.
Ardern has repeatedly promised to pull back on Covid-19 restrictions when they were no longer effective or needed – and set the end of winter as the likely time to assess it, after the worst of the Omicron outbreak had passed.
Even at the peak of the Omicron outbreak in winter, Ardern had resisted moving to the red setting of the traffic light system, saying gathering limits would be of limited use in constraining the spread of Covid-19 and the most effective tools were masking, isolation and vaccinations.
The main legislation for the response, the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, is currently in force until the end of December unless it is repealed earlier. When renewing it, then Covid-19 Response minister Chris Hipkins said he expected it to eventually be replaced by new legislation both to contend with the ongoing Covid response and future pandemics.
That could be left in place for now to allow measures to be taken in case of a new variant and while changes to wider pandemic laws are considered.
As well as allowing Covid-19 orders to be made under the Epidemic Preparedness (Covid-19) Notice 2020, it also provides for that to happen if a state of emergency in respect of Covid-19 is in place, or under the authority of the Prime Minister.