The Covid-19 pandemic will not end with the Omicron variant and New Zealand will have to prepare for more variants of the virus this year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday in her first parliamentary speech for 2022.
Ardern's warning came as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the parliament building in the capital Wellington, demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates.
"Mr Speaker, advice from experts is that Omicron will not be the last variant we will face this year," Ardern told lawmakers in the speech which was livestreamed.
"It's not over. But that doesn't mean we cannot move forward. And keep making progress. And so we are," she said.
Ardern's government has enforced some of the toughest pandemic restriction in New Zealand for the last two years, as the government tried to keep the coronavirus out.
The policies helped keep infections and deaths low. A country of five million people, New Zealand has had about 18,000 confirmed Covid cases so far and 53 deaths.
But it also angered many who faced endless home isolation, and tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders who were cut off from families back home as the borders remained sealed. The measures have also been devastating for businesses dependent on international tourists.
Ardern's approval ratings plummeted in the latest 1News Kantar Public Poll released last month, as the public marked her down for the delays in vaccinations and in removing restrictions.
Hundreds of anti-vaccine mandate and anti-government protesters gathered outside the parliament demanding an end to all pandemic restrictions, part of a series of protests undertaken in recent months.
The government said last week that the country will reopen its borders to the rest of the world in phases only by October.
Omicron cases in the country have been steadily rising since some of the social distancing measures were eased recently. New Zealand recorded its largest ever one-day case number with 243 cases on Saturday.
Ardern told Radio New Zealand that the country's Omicron peak could be in March with daily cases ranging between 10,000 to 30,000.