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Covid-19: Experts say vaccination push needed as virus ‘will travel for summer’

New Zealand needs to prepare for the inevitability of Covid-19 spreading across the country and push “hard” for higher vaccination rates in the month before Auckland’s border opens, experts commented.

Auckland’s hard boundary will lift on the December 14, allowing those in Tāmaki Makaurau who are fully vaccinated or who have had a negative test within 72 hours of departure to leave the city. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the move earlier this week, alongside Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, as Auckland marks 92 days – or a quarter of the year to date – in lockdown.

Ardern said officials deliberately set the date to change in a month’s time in order to give New Zealand time to move into the traffic light system and to increase vaccination rates. There have been 1175 new community cases in Auckland in the seven days to Tuesday and the virus continues to leak out of Auckland.

Even with the border in place, Covid-19 has escaped to Northland, Waikato, Taupō, Tararua (Woodville), Taranaki, Wairarapa (Masterton), Wellington, Blenheim and Christchurch.

Eighty-two per cent of New Zealanders are now fully vaccinated versus 23 per cent when Delta arrived.

“We will be in an even safer position by mid-December when it is expected New Zealand as a whole will be around 90 per cent fully vaccinated,” Ardern said.

The requirements will be in place for the “core” summer period, between December 15 and January 17.

By January 17, vaccination levels would be even higher, Ardern said, and testing and vaccine certificates would have been used to slow any potential spread.

University of Otago associate dean (Pacific) and biomedical scientist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said that while it was “very encouraging” that we were moving into a highly vaccinated environment, we still needed to be vigilant as risk remained – and we could not leave anyone behind.

“There is still work to do here. We need to still be driving hard to get those levels up.”

Sika-Paotonu said regional boundaries and restrictions were being eased at a time when case numbers were steadily increasing, and more people were interacting.

“People need to be ready for what is coming,” she said.

Even with high vaccination rates, there is risk that we will see an acceleration of spread particularly among those most vulnerable, she said.

Ninety per cent coverage is not everyone: “Those gaps pertain to our most vulnerable communities” – including Māori and Pacific people, children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated, and young people who were the last group to be eligible for vaccination.

Working to improve vaccination rates among these groups would be a “fundamental” component as we moved towards opening up Auckland to the rest of the country, she said.

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