ANALYSIS: At 4pm on Monday, the Government will lay out what life will look like when the traffic light system, officially known as the Covid-19 Protection Framework, begins on Friday.
The key decision will be which parts of the country are at the ‘orange’ light setting and which are at ‘red’. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has previously said that no region will be going into ‘green’ but that on Monday we will learn what the circumstances will be for that to occur.
The decisions will likely turn on both vaccination rates and the number of cases in an area. It is difficult, for example, to see areas such as Northland and Tairāwhiti being moved to orange, given low vaccination rates hovering around 75 per cent. There is also a good chance that the Government will take a precautionary approach ahead of the Christmas holiday period, during which there will be a lot of domestic travel.
The good news is that daily number of cases in hospital remains relatively constant, while the seven-day rolling community case average per day is 182. On Sunday, 82 people were in hospital, while nine were in ICU. This means that hospitalisations as a proportion of overall cases are continuing to fall, pointing to the success of the high Auckland vaccination rate in reducing serious illness.
The key difference between the red and orange is sliced two ways. The first is the difference between what people are allowed to do at each level and which businesses are allowed to operate. The second is between what vaccinated people and those who are unvaccinated are allowed to do, and around how vaccine certificate businesses are allowed to operate.
Minister of Finance Grant Robertson will also detail new business support for the transition, which was flagged a couple of weeks ago.
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On December 15, the domestic Auckland border will also all but open – vaccinated people will be able to move in and out, as will unvaccinated people who return a negative test – life will drift back towards normal for the travel and domestic tourism sectors.
For those parts of the country in orange, if a person is vaccinated, or operating a vaccine certificate business there is basically good news: life will be close to normal domestically, with the exception of mask-wearing in various public places.
Vaccine certificate venues will be allowed open to full capacity for people who are vaccinated. Masks will still be required on public transport and in taxis. They will be recommended in the public places where mask usage is currently suggested.
For people who are not vaccinated, places such as clubs, bars and restaurants that are running as vaccine certificate venues will be off-limits.
The Government’s My Vaccine Pass – the name given to the vaccine certificates - will be the key to gaining entry to these places.
Retail businesses and places such as supermarkets will not be covered by the mandatory vaccine certificate rules, but will still have some spacing limits in place.
This will test the Government’s resolve on enforcing the new vaccine certificate regime, how well and willing businesses are to comply with it, and it will also test how committed unvaccinated people are to remaining that way.
Once life begins to normalise for vaccinated people the theory in Wellington is that a reasonable number of unvaccinated people will get a jab. Time will tell if a mini-spike in first vaccination rates occurs.
Those regions with very little Covid-19 and high enough vaccination rates will likely go into the orange setting. Those with a lot of Covid-19, such as Auckland, will go into red.
Red is effectively an equivalent of a current alert level 2.5. Everything will be allowed to open, but there will be 100 people limits in places such as bars and restaurants, based on 1 metre social distancing between people.
Under both settings, close contact businesses such as gyms and hairdressers that have opted not to become vaccine pass businesses, will not be allowed to open.
The only recourse to lockdowns under the new system is if an outbreak takes hold in an area with low vaccination rates. Although the Government could change this at any time.
The news over the weekend of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 was a friendly reminder that with Covid nothing is set in stone and that the situation is constantly evolving.
If there is a new strain that proves to be both faster to spread and deadlier, the Government here could be tempted to pull back on its new system, although it seems unlikely at this point.
Meanwhile, travellers from nine African countries have been put on the Covid-19 “very high risk” list, meaning only New Zealand citizens will be able to return, and they will have to spend a full 14 days in MIQ, not the new seven-day regime.
From Friday, these new traffic light settings will all apply. From December 15, when the Auckland border mostly opens, Covid-19 will be allowed to spread around the country in a controlled manner.
Hospitalisations and cases in ICU are now the only really policy-relevant daily numbers to watch.