Aotearoa will enter a new phase of its Covid journey on December 3, moving into the new traffic light system in the “best possible position”, according to the country’s top health official.
Auckland, still experiencing a significant outbreak, will go straight into the top red setting, while the rest of the country’s fate will be determined by Cabinet next Monday – a decision largely to weigh on where vaccination rates stand.
Auckland will also see a trial run of the new vaccination pass system from Thursday at hairdressers.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, flanked by director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, made the announcements on Monday with a sense of optimism, despite 205 community cases reported earlier – the fourth-highest daily total.
The positive thinking was rooted in the fact case numbers have started to plateau, despite restrictions in Auckland relaxing nearly two weeks ago, and all school age groups returning last week.
The R value, rate of reproduction, was back down to about 1 – meaning each person was infecting only about one other person, so avoiding exponential growth.
The small pockets of Covid-19 cases around the country had remained relatively contained, indicating vaccinations, current restrictions and contact tracing were allworking together against the virus.
“We are going into this next phase in one could argue the best possible position,” Bloomfield said.
“We have got a controlled outbreak, we are going into summer and we have got high and still increasing vaccination rates. That is as good a position I would have hoped we’d be in.”
Ardern said they were announcing the date to give businesses time to prepare.
The announcement has been welcomed, particularly by the hospitality industry.
“After months of closure, a set date for the reopening of hospitality in Auckland is welcome and long overdue,” Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois said.
However, she questioned why it was still 11 days away and why they were still not equipped to handle the new vaccine pass system.
Act Party leader David Seymour said the December 2 “Freedom Day” should have been announced earlier, and questioned if it was delayed by not having the vaccine pass ready.
“We have been waiting for a Government that is not prepared, rather than Aucklanders to get vaccinated,” Seymour said.
So far 1.2 million people had downloaded their vaccine pass, and Ardern urged those who had not yet done so to get in now.
This new system and verifier app – being launched tomorrow – will be trialled in Auckland from this Thursday, where hairdressers and barbers in Auckland will be able to open if they require proof of vaccination from customers.
Ardern said hairdressers were chosen because the seating allowed distancing to be maintained.
Guidance this week will also set out how businesses can operate safely under the traffic light system.
Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said he agreed with Bloomfield that there was a sense of optimism about the outbreak.
“We are not seeing exponential rise, there was a steady rise and now a flattening of the curve, and those outbreaks in other parts of the country have not spread widely.”
With Auckland going straight into a “red light district” there was not likely to be a huge increase in transmission, and it was likely other vulnerable areas too would start in the red setting.
“More mixing will have an effect but increasingly we have vaccinations on our side,” Baker said.
“My concerns remain those gaps in vaccination.”
Some 83 per cent of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated. Ardern said if all people now overdue for their second shot got it today, that number would rise to 88 per cent.
However, behind the headline figures the current outbreak and vaccination rollout continues to be plagued by inequity.
Of the total 6850 cases in the outbreak, 43 per cent are Māori. The Māori vaccination rate continues to lag – not about 19 per cent behind for both jabs, although the gap is slowly closing and is just 12 per cent for first dose.
Vaccination rates, geographic and deprivation data all indicate access to vaccines continues to be an issue for our most isolated and poorer communities.
These issues have prompted some communities to ask holidaymakers to stay away this summer.
Ardern said the new traffic light system meant those vulnerable areas would likely go straight into the red setting which included mechanisms to try to ensure travel could be as safe as possible.
“We do have measures to ensure those who are protected by the vaccine are protected in other ways.”
She said she did expect more checks to be in place around areas including Northland, where there was concern among iwi.
Of Monday’s cases, 175 were in Auckland, one in Palmerston North, 20 in the Waikato, five in the Bay of Plenty, one in Taupō and four in Northland.
The seven-day rolling average is 186 – below the 200 predicted by Government modelling.
The number of cases in hospital has hovered between 70 and 88, and those in ICU around six – also well below the modelling.
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