The Government is reopening the border – starting with Kiwis coming from Australia from February 27 - with the MIQ system to end for all but "high-risk" unvaccinated travellers.
Everyone else will be allowed to self-isolate as the border reopens in five stages, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed.
In a speech to Business NZ in Auckland this morning, Ardern said there was life before, and there will be life after, Covid.
"We are well on our way to reaching that destination. But we are not quite there yet."
As Ardern laid out the path to a "new normal", she first looked back to the early days of the pandemic.
"I recall the emergency cabinet meeting where we discussed the very first border closure – which in the first stages was country by country. I remember the moment we decided to require very traveller to self-isolate.
"I remember the cases that arose from people who then didn't self-isolate. And I remember the establishment of our managed isolation and quarantine system on the 10th of April almost two years ago."
Ardern said it was "easy to hear the word MIQ and immediately associate it with heartache".
"There is no question, that for New Zealand, it has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic.
"But the reason that it is right up there as one of the toughest things we have experienced, is in part because large-scale loss of life is not.
"The anguish of MIQ has been real, and heartbreaking. But the choice to use it, undeniably saved lives.
"MIQ meant not everyone could come home when they wanted to. But it also meant that Covid could not come in when it wanted to, either."
MIQ had given New Zealand time to "build our defences", including getting vaccinated and setting up public health measures, get children vaccinated and keep the economy strong.
The markers of success had been hard earned by every Kiwi here and abroad, she said.
The delayed reopening due to Omicron had allowed the rollout of boosters, and for "Kiwis to take a breath" before the next phase.
Ardern said now, with the community better protected, it was time to move again, and announced five steps to reconnect New Zealand to the world.
The 5-step plan
Fully vaccinated Kiwis and other currently eligible travellers from Australia will be able to travel to New Zealand from 11.59pm Sunday 27 February, and instead of going into MIQ, will be able to self-isolate.
In step 2, two weeks later, at 11.59pm on Sunday 13 March, fully vaccinated New Zealanders and other currently eligible travellers from the rest of the world will also be able to travel into New Zealand without going through MIQ.
"The two weeks between each of these steps has been requested by public health advisors to give time for our systems to adjust for the likelihood of more cases in our community, and for our border systems to keep scaling up in the safest way possible," Ardern said.
At step 2, there will also be an expanded border exception for critical workers, and skilled workers earning at least 1.5 times the median wage, who will also be eligible to enter New Zealand, along with highly skilled workers' family members who may have been separated from their loved ones.
"This means that health workers, farm managers, horticultural workers, tech sector professionals, those working for accounting services, in education and construction, will all be eligible to enter New Zealand, and self-isolate for a short period and then go about their business.
"Adding to the more than 17,000 critical workers who have already come to New Zealand since our borders closed."
Working Holiday Schemes will also reopen in stages from step 2, Ardern said.
Step 3 begins from 11.59pm 12 April.
"Here we further extend our border extension to include a large international student cohort of up to 5000 students for entry ahead of semester 2 and temporary visa holders who still meet relevant visa requirements.
"Step 4 sees the biggest expansion yet, and includes our Australian cousins and all other visitors and other visitors and business travellers who can normally enter New Zealand without a visa.
"This stage is likely to begin when we have much larger case numbers than we have now. For planning, we anticipate this stage will begin no later than July.
"I want to place strong emphasis on this being the latest we expect this to begin. There is a high likelihood of this date coming forward as we progress through the next stage of the pandemic."
From July those on the new Accredited Employer Work Visa will open, including for workers offshore.
At this point, the critical worker border exception will be removed.
The new work visa will be mainly available to workers earning over the median wage as part of the Immigration Rebalance changes.
The Minister of Immigration will have more to say about this and other immigration rebalance measures soon, Ardern said.
Step 5 begins in October and includes all other visitors and students who require a visa to enter New Zealand, with normal visa processing resuming.
On isolation requirements, Ardern said travellers will be asked to follow "broadly the same requirements we have in New Zealand for close contacts at the time of their travel".
This was due to the likelihood of coming into contact with Omicron on their journey.
"That means currently, returning New Zealanders will need to self-isolate for 10 days. But as the isolation period drops for close contacts here in New Zealand, as it does in phase two of our Omicron response, so too will returnees only need to isolate for 7 days."
On testing, all arrivals will be given three rapid antigen tests upon arrival at the airport, to take home.
One for use on day 0/1, and one for use on day 5/6, with one extra for backup.
"That gives us the best chance of identifying cases that have come across the border," Ardern said.
"If a positive result is returned at any point, returnees will be asked to get a follow up PCR test at a community testing station.
"That will help us to monitor any possible variants that may emerge. It will also help us assess when it's safe to lift self-isolation requirements."
While many will celebrate today's reopening, others will feel anxious about the resumption of people across our border, Ardern said.
"But here are the safeguards, we will be as boosted as possible at the end of February, the phasing reduces the risk of a surge in cases, and travellers will be testing and isolating, with MIQ remaining for the unvaccinated.
"This means we will know quickly if a traveller has the virus including any new variants."
Self-isolation would be continually monitored, she said.
"The strong advice from our public health officials is that we still need it to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case."
Opening back up in this managed way balances inflows of travellers so people can reunite and fill our workforce shortages, while also ensuring our healthcare system can manage an increase in cases, Ardern said.
"After all, our strategy with Omicron is to slow the spread, and our borders are part of that.
"As for MIQ, it will continue to be used for high-risk travellers such as those who are unvaccinated."
Winding up MIQ
The Defence Force will begin withdrawing from MIQ, with some hotels returning to traditional use to support the return of our tourists.
A core quarantine capacity will be maintained that can be scaled up as required, which will form the basis of a future National Quarantine Service.
Ardern thanked the MIQ workers a "very special group of people", who for almost two years have welcomed home over 200,000 Kiwis and critical workers, and 3600 people who have had Covid-19.
"That's more than the population of Napier, Masterton, Invercargill, Whanganui, Wānaka and Ōtaki put together."
"You worked at the frontline of Covid when there was no way to protect yourself other than rigorous infection controls – some of which meant you gave up your normal lives to protect others. I can't imagine the burden that presented."
"Thank you. You made all of us safe at a time when we needed you most. And we owe you a debt of gratitude."
Focus on the economic recovery
Reconnecting New Zealand was more than the family and friends who will be reunited, but also a critical element in our plan for a high wage, low carbon economy, Ardern said.
"The New Zealand economy has shown remarkable resilience through Covid-19, and I am determined that we will build on this base to deliver prosperity and security to all New Zealanders."
Ardern also announced she will lead trade delegations and trade-supporting visits into four key markets this year – Australia, Asia, the United States and Europe.
New Zealand is in demand. Our exports are at record highs, people want to live and work here, international students want to study here, our friends and whānau want to return.
"Today's reconnecting plan will help grow an already strong export base, bring in new skills, address the shortages standing in the way of growth, and build new connections with the world."
The plan didn't mean a return to life "before Covid", Ardern said.
"We can be better than that."
Ardern also referred to the reliance on unsustainable reliance on temporary migrant labour.
"We have a chance to do things differently."
"A recovery where our focus is on creating higher wage jobs through lifting our productivity, growing our skills and investing in our innovation.
"It is a future where the environmental challenge of climate change is matched by the economic opportunities of low emissions technology and regenerative agriculture."
Ardern said that work had already started, referencing Covid economic support schemes and investment in infrastructure.
"In 20 years' time at this period in our country's history, I don't want people to just see Covid. I want them to see an economy and country that was fundamentally repositioned to become more sustainable and resilient and taking on the challenges of poverty, inequality, climate change and mental health, problems the world is grappling with."
Now was time for a "new phase" of the Covid response, Ardern said, and now we had have all the tools possible to prepare.
"We are vaccinated, increasingly boosted, and continue to prepare ourselves at home and work with a plan.
"And so now it is time, to move forward together, safely."
On the timeline
Answering questions from reporters, Ardern said the dates were "very firm" and phased to fit in with the boosters rollout. "New Zealanders are coming home from February 27th".
She told people to get boosted ahead of that, because it would not change. It was one of the reasons the gap had been moved to three months.
These dates were fixed in the early stages, February 27 and March 13, but the ability of travellers to arrive would be under review.
Kiwis overseas could plan for those dates announced today.
The July timeframe for other travellers was the latest possible and was more than likely to be brought forward, she said.
"We have no intention of changing these dates, We want people to be able to plan."
In light of a potential new variant she encouraged all to get boosted.
Fully vaccinated meant having first and second dose. They were working through rules around boosters.
Asked about potential numbers of cases that could come in as a result, Ardern said generally with Omicron when there are a large number of cases within country the less seeding of new cases makes a difference.
The July dates are likely to come forward once there are large numbers of cases here.
It won't be a "huge onslaught" of cases in the beginning, Ardern said, but a "manageable" number.
Ardern said the move to self-isolation had a level of personal responsibility. There were potential fines for breaches of between $4000 and $12,000.
This was an important for milestone for New Zealand, but also one New Zealand was ready for.
On Australia, the relationship was important to New Zealand and it was closer to home. There was also a slightly lower caseload on arrivals from there. It also allowed bringing in the new systems in stages.
Tourists from countries that don't require a visa to visit can come to New Zealand by July and those who need visas by October.
In terms of potential traveller numbers from Australia there could be anywhere up to 675,000 people, but that would take some time, she said. Those on working holiday visas could see up to 50,000 over a year and critical workers up to 20,000.
On the trade delegations, Ardern said she was committed to them but would announce dates and a schedule at a later time.
With the new quarantine system, Ardern said they anticipated a long-term system, with a workforce and purpose design facilities - either purpose-built or enhancing current establishments.
Pre-departure testing would remain part of the system.
There were mechanisms to prevent people flying from other countries to Australia to arrive here earlier, she said.
There was no reason though to do so as two weeks later it would open to all Kiwis around the world, she said.
Bringing the July date for tourists forward would be based on how the Omicron outbreak plays out and when it peaks.
Ardern said the range of models about when the peak would occur was "huge". Based on overseas experiences it looked to be at the 6 to 8 week mark with a sharp decline.
Ardern said tourists would still be attracted to come to New Zealand for the same reasons they always have. The red setting still allowed all of that, the hospitality and sights and warm welcome of New Zealanders, while also having a high priority on their health.
Many countries had large scale Omicron outbreaks. High risk countries would be deemed by a range of factors, she said, not just having a large outbreak.
There was no set timeline for when unvaccinated people would be able to bypass MIQ.
On self-isolation, Ardern said it was likely a 7-day period would be in place by the first phase. She could not say when self-isolation would be removed altogether but said it would be under constant review.
Robertson and Faafoi comment
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Sport Grant Robertson said the changes meant the Breakers and the Warriors could now return to New Zealand.
He said he'd "love to" see them back home, as would many New Zealanders.
He said step 3 will include those classed as able to come through MIQ for sports and events.
At that point they will be able to self-isolate.
At step 4, with visa waiver countries, there would be "significantly more" ability for sports and cultural events to move backwards and forwards.
There would be no exemptions for having to go through this process, but there would be various training protocols for during those self-isolation periods.
Robertson said this would be significant for business. But while immigration would be part of the mix it was important to get more people skilled up here.
For people coming to work here the self-isolation period would not be an issue and exporters had also told them it was what they wanted.
He acknowledged there would be restrictions around tourists but said that was why the need for self-isolation would be continually reviewed.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said under the criteria for critical workers to come in they would need to be earning "a little over $86,000" - 1.5 times the median wage.
Regarding split migrant families, Faafoi said those that fell into that category would be able to come in immediately. Those from visa waiver countries could come by July at the latest and those requiring visas by October.
Faafoi said this showed New Zealand was on track to attract highly skilled workers.
Regarding New Zealanders potentially leaving, Faafoi said the demand lately had been to enter the country but it would be on businesses to ensure they retained their workforces.
Drawn out reopening
Air New Zealand's website now shows the requirement for MIQ has been removed after February 27, with transtasman flights available for $400 from that date.
Last November's plan to reopen the borders in a staged approach from mid-January was put on hold shortly before Christmas, as Omicron proliferated overseas.
Previously, the plan was for people from Australia to be allowed to isolate at home for seven days after January 16, and those from other countries from February 13.
All fully vaccinated foreign travellers would have been able to travel from April 30.
However, on December 21, the start date was pushed out to late February but that was under review, depending on Omicron.
The MIQ lottery system and its limited spaces caused increasing headaches for the Government, with pregnant TV journalist Charlotte Bellis the latest of a string of Kiwis in tricky situations and struggling to get home.
Bellis has confirmed she will return to New Zealand in early March to give birth to her baby girl, after accepting an emergency spot in MIQ.
At a press conference yesterday, Ardern said there would be multiple people in distressing situations struggling with MIQ - but on the flip side, the system had saved lives.
Today's border news will also follow a move to shorten the gap between second vaccine doses and boosters from four months to three, in a bid to ensure immunity improved before widespread Omicron community transmission.