New Zealand Covid: Ardern unveils post-lockdown ‘traffic light’ system linked to 90% vaccination rate

More than 18 months into the pandemic, New Zealand has announced its roadmap for a post-lockdown future – and says dropping restrictions hinges on the country hitting some of the world’s most ambitious vaccination rates.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday announced that 90% of eligible New Zealanders needed to be fully vaccinated across each District Health Board (DHB) region before the whole country moves to a new “traffic light” system of much looser public health restrictions. The country has a growing outbreak of the Delta variant, and on Friday announced 129 new cases – a record high since the pandemic began.

“We cannot ask vaccinated people to stay home for ever. So now we need a new playbook to reflect a population protected from Covid,” Ardern said. She said the new system would provide “a future where we want to continue to protect people’s lives, but also to live our lives”.

When the 90% targets are reached, the country will switch to a traffic light system. Even at a “red” setting – the highest levels of restriction, designed to protect the health system from high transmission – businesses will be able to remain open and vaccinated people will be able to use services relatively freely. Those without vaccination certificates, however, will face serious limitations: they will be limited to takeaway food, smaller gatherings of up to 10 people, distance learning at universities, and not able to use “close contact” businesses like gyms, hairdressers or bars.

“Fully vaccinated people will be able to reconnect with family and friends, go to bars and restaurants and do the things they love with greater certainty and confidence. The framework also provides businesses greater certainty to plan and grow,” Ardern said.

“If you are still unvaccinated, not only will you be more at risk of catching Covid-19, but many of the freedoms others enjoy will be out of reach. No one wants that to happen but we need to minimise the threat of the virus, which is now mainly spreading amongst unvaccinated people.”

New Zealand is still some way away from hitting 90% double-dosed. As of Thursday, 66% of the eligible population (those aged 12 and over) were fully vaccinated with both doses; 83% of the eligible population have had at least one dose. Even with high vaccination rates, the country could experience significant levels of mortality and illness from Covid-19 – realities that New Zealand has not had to reckon with so far.

Modelling released by the government and research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini last month projected that with 80% of those aged 5 and over double-jabbed, it could cause just under 60,000 hospitalisations and just under 7,000 deaths over the course of a year. Even with 90% of the population aged 5 and over fully vaccinated, deaths could sit at about 600 a year without other health measures. Neither model is precisely analogous to the new plan – the government’s targets are for those aged 12 and over, not 5 and over, and under the traffic light system they could be combined with other public health measures.

Earlier drafts of this framework have been strongly opposed by a number of Māori groups, who are concerned lower vaccination rates mean the new system condemns indigenous people to higher rates of illness and death.

“If the government is prepared to open the borders as soon as our country is 90% vaccinated, they are willingly holding Māori up to be the sacrificial lambs. It is a modern form genocide,” Māori party leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said earlier in the month.

Māori and Pacific communities are lagging behind in vaccination rates, partly because their populations skew younger than the wider population. Modelling by Te Pūnaha Matatini found Māori were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalised with Covid-19 than non-Māori, after controlling for age and pre-existing conditions. Pacific people were three times more likely to end up in hospital with Covid. On top of that, Māori are more likely to have pre-existing conditions, like diabetes and asthma, that put them at greater risk if they contract Covid-19.

The National Iwi Chairs Forum condemned the strategy last week, saying it was “absolutely clear that we reject the Traffic Light Framework”.

“Māori and Pacific vaccination rates have to increase to the same level as other New Zealanders otherwise the infection and mortality rate will disproportionally affect our vulnerable communities,” said Lisa Tumahai, chair of the Pandemic Response Group.

Ardern said that the government believed major cities like Auckland would be able to hit those rates before Christmas. “Even at the current [vaccination] rates, Auckland would move before, absolutely before, Christmas. What we want is for them to move as soon as possible,” she said. Auckland, which has been in lockdown for several months, will be able to shift to the traffic light system as soon as its DHBs hit 90%, Ardern said. The city is 16,000 doses away from hitting 90% first doses.

Ardern’s announcement also marked a final, formal goodbye to the country’s long-held Covid-elimination strategy. While the country has been shifting away from this for weeks, some government officials have continued to say New Zealand was attempting to eliminate the virus.

“Delta has made it very hard to maintain our elimination strategy,” Ardern said. “Its tentacles have reached into our communities and made it hard to shake even using the best public health measures in the toughest restrictions we had available to us. But right as our longstanding strategy was challenged, we also had a new tool, one that means as Covid has changed, we could change too – and rather than being locked down, we could move forward safely and with confidence. That tool is the vaccine.”

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