New Zealand has become "a society divided" under the Labour Government and it's time to phase out vaccine mandates - starting with at the border and for children, Christopher Luxon said.
The National leader used a speech on the protest outside Parliament today to blast Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for being "missing in action".
The Government's response to Covid had pitted the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, Luxon said.
"The Prime Minister talks about the team of five million, but actually she leads the most divisive Government in recent memory," he said.
"Renters versus landlords. Business owners versus workers. Farmers versus cities. Kiwis at home versus those stuck abroad.
"The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated."
Speaking shortly after Luxon, Ardern told reporters at the post-Cabinet press conference that the wave of Omicron cases is set to hit a peak in three to six weeks.
Ardern provided details on the conditions under which vaccination mandates could be eased as protests continue around Parliament's grounds.
She said the seven day average for cases now exceeded 1600.
"It's likely then that very soon, we will all know people who will have Covid.
"There was a time when that was a scary prospect but it doesn't have to be now,"
Ardern said New Zealand was in a stronger position than many places to weather the Omicron storm and in three to six weeks case numbers would probably peak.
Luxon's speech cited the protest outside Parliament to discuss broader issues with the Covid response, saying it was the culmination of "underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time".
"It's driven by Covid and vaccine mandates, yes, but the frustrations shared by many Kiwis are also driven by a Government that seems to be stalling."
Luxon said Labour's approach to Covid "relies far too heavily on controlling all aspects of everyday life, rather than using tools like rapid antigen tests to manage risk and give Kiwis more personal responsibility".
Prime Minister 'missing in action'
He accused Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of being "missing in action".
Luxon repeatedly emphasised a desire to return to some sort of middle ground.
He said even peoples' perceptions of the Covid response had been polarised, with some people thinking it was flawless, and others thinking it was dreadful.
The "truth" of how good the Covid response had actually been "lies somewhere in the middle", between people who think the response has been "without fault" and those who thought it was "flawed".
"We must chart a path back to that middle ground that unites us, and not allow ourselves to be divided into warring factions, inextricably and increasingly opposed."
People should be allowed to engage with issues behind the protest
Luxon said people should be allowed to sympathise with some issues behind the protest, without being accused of "condoning illegal behaviour or siding with anti-science conspiracy theorists".
He said that the Government's "unwillingness to engage" with the issues behind the protest "has amplified division.
"The dismissal of anyone who questions the Government approach has fed a growing distrust."
Changing the strategy for Omicron
Luxon argued the science behind the pandemic backed moving to a more permissive approach.
He said the Government's Covid strategy needed to be change, recognising that "Covid is very different in February 2022 to what it was in February 2020".
"Back then we had no vaccines, limited testing and no effective treatments," Luxon said.
But scientists now recognised "Covid has transformed from a deadly disease to one that is much less serious".
"Omicron is highly infectious, but milder. Covid is now manageable for the vast bulk of people at home," Luxon said.
He believed that the transition to a more permissive approach would be challenging for some people who wanted more Government intervention in their lives.
But he also pushed back on people who wanted a "let it rip" approach, which he said would overwhelm hospitals.
Instead, Luxon said there was "a third way through this" - echoing his earlier calls for return to the centre ground.
He said this middle ground would include keeping "effective public health measures like vaccination, boosters, testing and treatments," while also beginning to return "normality to people's lives".
Remove mandates at border and for children
Luxon said the Government should look at starting to remove vaccine mandates, starting with border workers and children.
He said border vaccinations "made a lot of sense when we had an elimination strategy and border worker vaccinations were the tool for keeping Covid out of the community.
"It obviously makes much less sense when we have thousands of community cases and as
the border reopens to the world. They need to go," Luxon said.
He described mandates that were the "most objectionable" were the ones that applied to "children taking part in extracurricular sport after school".
"They make no sense. They should be gone."
"Aggressively" reopening to the world
Luxon said New Zealand needed to "aggressively reopen to the world".
He criticised the slow speed of the Government's border reopening.
The Government did not have a strong case for asking people to self-isolate on return to New Zealand.
"We should quickly move to a rule where people take a test on arrival in New Zealand. If it is positive then they should isolate.
"If it's negative, they should be free to go about their business – just like Kiwis do within New Zealand," he said.
Luxon closed with a pitch for his own leadership. He said the country needed "new leadership", which "knows how to get things done and get our Covid toolset in place," which "isn't too proud to call it when we get things wrong and admits mistakes" and which "shows up when times are tough, not just in the glory moments".
Luxon previewed the speech in an op-ed published in the Herald this morning, which probed whether the protest outside Parliament was symptomatic of a deeper post-Covid malaise.
Luxon questioned what the protest said about the direction of the country, and asked what could be done to "heal the chasm of division that has opened up".
The op-ed tried to position Luxon as a leader of the political middle ground, and make the case for why the problems that led to the occupation of Parliament are the responsibility of Jacinda Ardern's Government - moving the debate from the Police and the Speaker, who have been responsible for the response to the protest so far.
Luxon wrote this morning that voters had been asking him about healing divisions and the path forward.
"They are not questions the Speaker can drown out with sprinklers or loud music. Good policing can't resolve them," Luxon wrote.
"What we are seeing outside Parliament, and the reaction to it, is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time".
Luxon will be careful not to fall into the traps of previous National leaders and launch a broadside against the Prime Minister and her approach to Covid-19.
In his op-ed, he paid tribute to her "wise decision to put New Zealand into lockdown".
"[W]e were united in our resolve to combat Covid-19, and we felt good about it".
He will also try to hedge against the allegation that National wants to quickly junk all Covid measures.
He wrote this morning that while it was "reasonable for non-vaccinated Kiwis to ask what conditions must be met for them to once again be able to go to work, go to restaurants and participate fully in civil society," it was also important that any plan to get rid of mandates "take into account both the evidence about Omicron and the need to protect our health system from being overwhelmed".
It's possible to see signs of growing division, despite the fact that 94 per cent of the eligible population is double vaccinated, and a recent snap Horizon poll showed 64.5 per cent of people supported the mandate policy.
A recent Taxpayers' Union poll from Curia, the firm that also polls for the National party, found that 42.9 per cent of New Zealanders believed the country to be on the right track, versus 42.3 per cent who thought it was on the wrong track - it's the closest those two numbers have been since the end of last year.