New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said plans to scrap some of its controversial COVID-19 vaccination mandates marked “a new beginning” for the country despite a recent surge in omicron infections.
Mandatory vaccinations will end next month for teachers, police officers and members of New Zealand’s military. Opposition to compulsory vaccine shots did provoke noisy, and at times violent, demonstrations for three weeks outside the parliament in Wellington.
Ardern said Monday in Wellington that expert advice and an expectation that the current wave of omicron cases will soon pass — and not the protests — had prompted the change in policy. However, workers in the health sector, those caring for the elderly and the prison sector must continue to be double-vaccinated.
Today, 95% of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated. The government believes high rates of vaccination and increasing natural immunity to COVID-19 will help to protect New Zealanders.
Some believe the move might occur too soon. Michael Baker is an epidemiologist at the University of Otago. He said winding back pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates and increasing capacity limits for cafes and restaurants, could cause a second omicron wave.
Despite such warnings, Ardern said some vaccine mandates will end on April 4.
“The government will not require mandates to be in place for education, police and defense workers,” she said. “We will continue their use for health, aged care workers, corrections staff and border and MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) workers. The rationale in each case is clear. These are either workers supporting our most vulnerable or they work in high-risk environments where [COVID] spread would be rapid or the exposure to new variants is high.”
New Zealand’s international borders, which were closed more than two years ago, will start to reopen in three weeks’ time.
Australians will be permitted to enter without needing to quarantine or isolate from April 13. Double-vaccinated tourists from about 60 countries, including Britain and the United States, will follow in early May.
New Zealand has a population of about 5 million. It has had some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions.
The government has recorded 538,000 COVID-19 infections and 184 deaths since the pandemic began.