New Zealand has now abandoned its final Covid-19 restrictions, ending a chapter in the country’s history that began with the global pandemic almost three and a half years ago.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall announced yesterday the requirements to isolate for seven days if infected and to wear masks at certain healthcare facilities will stop from today. Case rates, wastewater detection and hospitalisations have been trending down since June.
One expert says the decision was reasonable as the worst of the flu season was now behind us, but another believes the Government missed an opportunity to convey the best advice to people with respiratory conditions.
In April, Cabinet reviewed the remaining Covid requirements and decided to keep them until the end of August to help ease the pressure on hospitals during the onset of winter.
“Covid has put considerably less pressure on the health system this winter and other illnesses have been better planned for and managed,” Verrall said yesterday.
Reported Covid cases were at their lowest since February 2022. The virus accounted for 2.2 per cent of hospital admissions yesterday morning.
Verrall clarified that while not mandated, the Ministry of Health advised unwell people or those with Covid-19 to stay at home for five days.
Hipkins, formerly the Covid-19 Response Minister, recalled when New Zealand first entered Alert Level 4 lockdown on March 25, 2020, and yesterday admitted he had “longed for this particular day” when he was hosting what he hoped would be his final Covid-related press conference.
While he lauded Kiwis’ efforts to restrict the virus’ transmission, Hipkins acknowledged the harm it caused, the lives lost and those impacted by mandates.
“Despite these successes and saving lives and livelihoods, there is absolutely no sugar-coating just how difficult Covid-19 has been for New Zealand and for New Zealand families.”
Hipkins said the duration of the lockdown in Auckland in the second half of 2021 was probably one of the decisions he would change.
He denied the timing of yesterday’s announcement was linked to the upcoming election, saying it had been previously signalled that restrictions were on the way out.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the decision was a “missed opportunity” to build on what he saw as one of the pandemic’s key lessons.
”That is, if you’re sick with a respiratory illness, you need to take responsibility and isolate yourself, and that it’s not okay just to go to work, school or social events and infect others.”
Baker said that wasn’t just a consideration for Covid-19, but all respiratory infections.
”The thing I’d like to know now is, what do we substitute for this?” he said.
”If we’re not going to have it as a legal requirement, I think it’s an opportunity to work with relevant institutions - such as employers, schools or people operating social venues - to actually encourage this behaviour of not attending places if you are sick.
”Swimming pools have signs saying not to swim if you have gastroenteritis symptoms and this is the same concept. It’s just that we’ve been very selective about applying it.”
Covid-19 modeller professor Michael Plank said the decision was a “reasonable move” at this stage in the pandemic.
Considering the range of infectious diseases in our community, Plank said, increasingly it “doesn’t really make sense to single out Covid and treat it differently with legal mandates”.
Plank, of Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa, also expected keeping the isolation mandate for Covid-19 would likely have only “marginal” benefits on overall infection rates in the long term.
”I think they took a cautious approach, going into winter of extending [the seven-day isolation] mandate, because, of course, there was a concern that we might get a significant Covid wave coinciding with the winter flu season,” Plank said.
”The worst of the flu season is probably behind us now, and Covid levels are relatively low, so it’s a reasonable thing to do at this stage.”
But he added that didn’t mean people should go to work or school if they were sick.
Plank said many people infected with Covid didn’t get tested, potentially because they had no or very mild symptoms, thanks largely to vaccines.
”In addition, significant transmission occurs before symptom onset.”
He also pointed out that many other countries, including Australia, have already removed isolation mandates.
”That’s not to say New Zealand should blindly follow what others are doing - our pandemic response has only been as effective as it has because we weren’t afraid to do something different,” he said.
”But in this case, there’s no evidence that there was a surge in numbers after isolation requirements were lifted.”
The end of the self-isolation mandate also ended the Government’s accompanying Leave Support Scheme, for which people became ineligible from today.
Work and Income said after August 15, eligibility for employees would only apply to those who’d begun self-isolation before August 13, as they must have been isolating for at least four consecutive days.
Meanwhile, a Talbot Mills poll produced for its corporate clients and reported yesterday showed Labour on 32 per cent, up one percentage point from its previous poll and National on 35 per cent, down one point.
The polling period largely overlaps with that of last week’s Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll which had Labour dropping to 27.1 per cent and National well ahead on 34.9 per cent. However, the poll shows a different picture to Curia’s.
Adam Pearse is a political reporter in the NZ Herald Press Gallery team, based at Parliament. He has worked for NZME since 2018, covering sport and health for the Northern Advocate in Whangārei before moving to the Herald in Auckland, covering Covid-19 and crime.