Prime Minister - Post Cab Speaking Notes
Two important messages to share today.
I am joined by the Deputy Prime Minister who in a moment will share details of additional financial support to help business through the accelerating Omicron outbreak.
But first, I wish to speak as frankly as I can about where we are at currently in our fight against Covid-19, and where we are going.
After two long years we are now in the position where Covid has reached our shores in a widespread way. Our seven-day average for cases is 1667 and we are predicting cases will continue to double every three to four days. It’s likely then that very soon we will all know people who have Covid, or we will potentially get it ourselves.
There was a time when that was a scary prospect. But it doesn’t have to be now. And that’s for three reasons.
Firstly, we are highly vaccinated. And that happened before Omicron set in.
Secondly, our high vaccination coverage means Covid will be a mild to moderate illness for most. And if you’re boosted, you are 10 times less likely to end up in hospital.
Thirdly, even though for some people Covid will still be more severe, we’re using public health measures like masks, gathering limits and vaccines passes to slow down the spread. To ensure there is a hospital bed for everyone who needs it.
So far, that plan is working.
We have 46 cases per hundred thousand people compared to 367 in New South Wales and 664 in Victoria at the same point in the outbreak.
Our hospitalisations are well below Australian states at a similar time.
That all means that our healthcare systems can continue to keep people safe. So if someone has a heart attack tonight, the ambulance will arrive and take to them to a hospital with a free bed. And that is thanks to everyone who has stayed the course, despite it being so incredibly hard at times.
But what comes next?
Our primary goal is to manage Covid with as few restrictions on our daily lives as possible, to keep people feeling confident and safe, and to accelerate our economic recovery.
As always, what that means in terms of changing restrictions isn’t an easy question to answer in an often unpredictable pandemic. But by looking at what is happening overseas, we can begin to look to the future.
Firstly, we know our wave of cases is likely to hit a peak in roughly mid to late March, only three to six weeks away. At that point, if we follow the pattern of other countries, we’ll likely see a rapid decline, followed by cases stabilising at a lower level.
That is the point when we can start to do things differently.
First the Traffic Lights will change.
The Covid Protection Framework is built to keep our hospitals and wider health system running.
Once we come out the other side of the peak it will be clearer that we have reached our high point, that we have managed it, that our hospitals have managed, and we can begin to ease the public health measures that did their job in slowing the wave down.
And so we’ll be able to look at moving back through the Traffic Lights, easing off the gathering limits for instance.
But we also employed extra tools like vaccine passes in the face of Delta, and Omicron.
As we have always said – these were necessary. If we hadn’t had vaccine passes as we managed Delta, we would have had to instead use more general restrictions across the whole population. They have always been the least bad option.
But while they have been necessary, they have always been temporary.
Vaccine passes were a way of ensuring, that within the relatively free system of the Traffic Lights, that people who were in high risk places, had some layer of protection. But, once we come through a wave and peak of Omicron, that equation changes because many unvaccinated people will at that point have been exposed to the virus.
Put simply, the reason we will be able to move away from vaccine passes and many mandates, is because more people will have had Covid.
So in the same way that coming out the other side of the peak will give us the chance to step down through the Traffic Light system, and ease things like gathering limits, it will also enable us to move on vaccine passes and ease mandates in places where they are less likely to impact vulnerable people. They will remain important in some areas for some time.
There can be no specific date given at this point, but what I can tell you is that we will be looking to make sure that we are well beyond the peak, and that the pressure on our health system is manageable.
Some might ask, why not do away with the Traffic Light system entirely? The first answer is new variants and potential future waves, for which we must remain prepared.
And the second, is that we will go through our first winter with Covid at the same time that flu returns, following two winters of very low rates. So as our border opens, we approach winter, with the potential of more illness, we need to ensure our health system can manage a heavier burden.
To summarise then the coming weeks. Covid will increase, and rapidly. There will be disruption and pressure from Omicron. We must brace through the next six weeks, but we can do so knowing a future with fewer restrictions is near.
Because that has always been the course we have charted.
We’ve stopped using lockdowns. Our borders reopen to Kiwis in Australia in a week, and we progressively keep opening. Our use of MIQ which has helped us so much will change dramatically. And as we reach that peak and start to come down, we can start to move towards a life that feels a little more like a new normal that we can all live with.
2022 is about moving forward. New Zealand is in demand internationally and again, our primary goal is to manage Covid with few restrictions and accelerate our economic recovery while continuing to ensure that lives and livelihoods are protected.
And while everything I have said today has been directed to every New Zealander who is anxious about the future – either because they’re afraid or because they just want Covid to be over – I’ll leave this final message for those occupying the lawns of parliament.
Everyone is over Covid. No one wants to live with rules or restrictions. But had we not all been willing to work together to protect one another, then we all would have been worse off as individuals, including losing people we love.
That hasn’t happened here for the most part – and that is a fact worth celebrating, rather than protesting.
We all want to go back to the way life was. And we will, I suspect sooner than you think. But when that happens, it will be because easing restrictions won’t compromise the lives of thousands of people – not because you demanded it.
Now is not the time to dismantle our hard work and preparation, to remove our armour just as the battle begins.