Fully vaccinated, Covid-free travellers can enter New Zealand from Australia - without needing to self-isolate - from Thursday and Kiwis from anywhere in the world will be able to come home from midnight Friday, says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The changes - two years after Covid first entered New Zealand - spell the beginning of the end of the often controversial MIQ system and self-isolation for travellers, although MIQ will still be used for unvaxxed travellers.
Ardern said from 11.59pm, Wednesday Kiwi travellers entering from Australia would no longer need to self-isolate for seven days.
"Cabinet has agreed to lift all self-isolation requirements for vaccinated travellers entering New Zealand," Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in a statement.
"That means that all Kiwis coming home and tourists entering the country will be able to step off the plane and immediately connect with family and friends and enjoy all New Zealand has to offer."
The Government confirmed it would also bring forward Step 2 of the border reopening, so that New Zealanders from the rest of the world could return from midnight this Friday.
These travellers could previously only arrive, with self-isolation, from 11.59pm on Sunday, March 13.
Cabinet would review the timings of the remaining steps in the coming weeks, the PM said. This included temporary work and student visa holders currently outside New Zealand.
Every traveller would still need to do a rapid antigen test (RAT) on the day they arrived, and day five or six, and all positive tests would be followed up with PCR testing.
All travellers would need to do a pre-departure test before getting on the plane. The Government had sought advice on how long that measure would be needed.
Border cases had been decreasing over the past month - both in number and as a proportion of arriving travellers, Hipkins said.
The seven-day average for border cases at the weekend was 9.4, compared with a seven-day average of around 6700 for cases in the community.
"The border and MIQ workforce have done a phenomenal job at first keeping Covid-19 out of New Zealand and then slowing the spread once it arrived," Hipkins said. "Because of this mahi, New Zealand has one of the lowest number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world.
"Now that we are two years into the Covid-19 pandemic the risk has shifted from our border, to our community.
"Managed isolation will remain for unvaccinated New Zealanders, refugees and some community cases as needed. But it does mean we will begin to scale back some of our managed isolation capacity."
Professor Sir David Skegg said the pattern of risk in New Zealand had shifted dramatically.
Skegg said experts believed self-isolation requirements could be dropped for fully-vaccinated travellers - for returning New Zealanders and tourists. Those travellers should be tested either at the airport or within 24 hours.
Anyone positive should be treated the same as anyone else in New Zealand. Genome sequencing should also take place to identify any new variants.
Ardern said this would be "welcome news" to the "team" overseas keen to travel home, and those in the travel industry.
Throughout the Omicron outbreak the Government would continue to remove restrictions on advice, Ardern said.
On changes to allow tourists in, Ardern said the early feedback from experts was we were still in the middle of Omicron and waiting to reach the peak.
Skegg said it was sensible to be cautious at the moment and the next few weeks would be "very challenging".
The virus continued to replicate and it was expected more variants would arrive. Anything that displaced Omicron could be more or less virulent, Skegg said. We could be facing a new threat but "we hope not".
Ardern said Omicron was tracking more rapidly than expected with a mid-March peak predicted, possibly earlier.
Ardern said the Government had moved quickly. They had always said when incoming cases had less material impact they would be ready to move, she said. This had occurred within about "six or seven days".
Those who arrived today from Australia would not have to do the full week self-isolation, she said.
When asked why the move to self-isolate wasn't taken earlier, Skegg said any advice two or three weeks ago would have been very different. Advice had been sought on Wednesday, Ardern said.
One expert member on the advisory panel was still advocating the country waited a little longer.
Ardern said MIQ would be retained, with the option to scale up if need be. In the future, we could not make an assumption any future variant would be any less severe.
With just five people with Covid in ICU, Ardern said there was "no question" boosters were making a difference in this outbreak.
On any fears around the border reopening and impact on the health system, Ardern said on top of up to 6000 travellers a week in Step 1, up to 13,000 travellers were expected in Step 2.
Up to 425 cases a week were expected at those steps, with more due to removing self-isolation. This was seen to be a minimal impact given current community transmission.
On mandates generally, Skegg said they had been asked to look into that over the next few weeks.
Ardern said it was unclear how many tourists could be expected to visit, but Tourism NZ had worked hard to maintain the country's brand.
Earlier, Ardern told RNZ that the latest advice to the government from Skegg and his team had been received late yesterday.
"We've been very much wanting to make sure that while we're in this period of dealing with Omicron that we're carefully easing up at the border so that we don't necessarily over-burden our health system, but with so many cases in New Zealand now, it makes sense to look at those settings.
"Cabinet will discuss and make decisions today," she said ahead of the 4pm post-Cabinet press briefing.
The return of the 1pm press briefing
Meanwhile, the Government also announced the daily 1pm press conferences were returning - albeit with a bit of a difference. This time around, the PM and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield will not hold them together.
The Government has decided to restart the daily briefings to help with information during the Omicron outbreak. Monday's press conference will be the Prime Minister's usual 4pm post Cabinet press conference, and on Tuesday to Friday there will be a 1pm briefing, as in previous outbreaks.
Bloomfield will hold the briefings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with other health officials to provide health information. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins will host on Wednesdays and different ministers will be appear every Friday, from Auckland.
It comes as the Ministry of Health announced 14,633 new community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today - with the country topping 100,000 cases since the pandemic began.
There are 344 people in hospital, including five in intensive care.
Seventeen people who were at the protest at Parliament have tested positive for Covid-19.
However, the ministry said due to reluctance by protesters to get a Covid-19 test, the true number of cases linked to the protest was likely to be much higher.
NZ's response to Russian invasion of Ukraine
Ardern said Cabinet discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and whether to bring in sanctions.
This included options around "certain actors" New Zealand could put pressure on around investments, and something specifically targeted at Russia, she said.
Changing the sanctions legislation might not be timely enough, she said.
This would be about incoming investment, but further advice was being sought for current assets, Ardern said.
New Zealand didn't have military hardware to offer Ukraine, which was why the country focused on stopping any support to Russia and providing a humanitarian response. Aid would go through the Red Cross, she said.
Ardern said no assumptions had been made on China's position.
"We don't want to further entrench diplomatic hostility when what we need are diplomatic solutions," she said.
National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee has called for New Zealand to expel the Russian Ambassador but Ardern said no decisions had been made. She warned of "knock-on effects".
On the Ukrainian response, Ardern said she could not imagine what it would be like to have your homeland invaded.
She described it as a "brazen and inhumane invasion" and said the actions of civilians were "extraordinary".
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced today that New Zealand was providing humanitarian aid to support those in Ukraine.
Currently New Zealand is hampered in applying sanctions as Russia has a veto on any resolutions in the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member.
Australia has enacted a range of sanctions on Russia in its response but so far held off expelling any diplomats.
Mahuta earlier said New Zealand would provide an initial $2 million to help deliver essential humanitarian assistance, with a focus on supporting health facilities and meeting basic needs such as provision of food and hygiene items.
"Aotearoa New Zealand stands by the people of Ukraine impacted by Russia's unprovoked invasion," Mahuta said.
"It is deeply disturbing to hear reports of the growing numbers of deaths and injuries from this conflict. The harrowing and horrific images of displaced, or suffering civilians, in Ukraine speak volumes of this unfolding tragedy, and underlines the consequences of Russia's unprovoked aggression.
"These are early days and we will continue to monitor events closely as the scale of the conflict, and the resulting humanitarian crisis, becomes clearer. We know the consequences of Russia's actions will be significant, and tragically many of these will fall on innocent civilians.
"We repeat our call, alongside international partners, for Russia to cease military operations in Ukraine, and immediately and permanently withdraw to avoid a catastrophic and pointless loss of innocent life."