All of New Zealand will move to the orange setting of the traffic light framework from 11.59pm tonight, in time for both school holidays and the Easter long weekend.
The move will bring huge relief for hospitality venues with all indoor restrictions dropped and the seated and separated rule ditched.
Speaking at parliament, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said the move was possible as case numbers and hospitalisations are on the decline. For the first time since late February, all three hospitals in Auckland are reporting less than 100 Covid-19 patients.
However, facing questions on mask use, Hipkins appeared not to know the rules at orange. He deferred at least half a dozen questions from reporters and eventually said he would not answer any mask questions until he had been sent through the “absolute list” from his officials.
“I just had a bit of a mind blank,” he said.
Face masks would not, though, be made mandatory at schools while at orange. Further guidance is being provided to schools, said Hipkins, and where schools are experiencing acute outbreaks they may introduce mask requirements.
“Face masks will continue to play an important rule in keeping cases down,” said Hipkins. “We continue to encourage the use of face masks when people are out and about in public. For workers face masks are still required at some events and close-proximity businesses such as hairdressers.”
According to the official rules masks are still required, at orange, on public transports, flights, and in shops. Hipkins initially said people didn’t need to wear masks in retail settings or on flights – they do.
“The decline in cases and hospitalisations, along with the arrival in new anti-viral medications, means the rolling average of deaths is also declining,” he said. “We are coming off the peak… in some cases, the peaks are falling off quickly.”
Since the last review of the settings 10 days ago, the seven day rolling average of cases had declined by 3,930, and cases now sit at under 10,000.
Asked about whether removing Easter trading restrictions for this year had been considered, as businesses will move out of Covid restrictions and straight into public holiday restrictions, Hipkins said no. However, he said that was why the move out of red will happen tonight instead of tomorrow night.
The next review of the traffic light framework will happen in mid-May.