Aucklanders will be allowed to leave the city this summer after months in lockdown, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has announced, but public health experts warn it could lead to a torrent of Covid-19 spreading into other parts of the country.
The country recorded 194 new cases of Covid-19 in the community on earlier this week and the death of a man in his 60s who tested positive for Covid-19. There have been 36 Covid-19 deaths in New Zealand since the pandemic began. Delta has been steadily spreading into other regions, including Northland, Waikato and Christchurch.
In September, the Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins responded to the opposition’s pandemic policy with a quip: “They are willing for Kiwis to get Covid for Christmas”. It is a line that may come back to haunt the government.
A strict border has been in place around Auckland since 31 August to minimise the spread of Covid-19 into other regions. From 15 December, Aucklanders will be allowed to leave the boundary, providing they are either double-vaccinated or have returned a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of leaving. The rules will be in place for the core summer period, until 17 January.
The boundary changes are two-way, meaning New Zealanders outside Auckland can travel into the city.
With 82% of New Zealanders fully vaccinated, compared with 23% three months ago, and projections of 90% fully vaccinated by mid-December, the country is better prepared for looser restrictions, Ardern said.
“Aucklanders have faced restrictions for an extended period of time to keep the rest of New Zealand safe. But with increased rates of vaccination it’s time to open up the ability to travel again,” she said.
Waiting until mid-December to loosen the boundary would allow time to get vaccine rates across the country “even higher”, she said, “which is an extra layer of protection”.
The police will have the discretion to enforce the rules, including undertaking random spot checks. Those caught breaking the rules could face a NZ$1,000 fine.
Vaccine passports, which were made available on Wednesday, will be required when boarding a domestic flight, and on the inter-island ferry between the North and South islands.
“Your vaccine pass is your ticket to summer, and is essential under the traffic light system” Ardern said.
In October, the government released a new “traffic light” system for Covid management, including a legal framework for vaccination mandates that could affect around 40% of the workforce. The new rules, which begin at 90% vaccination, would loosen almost all restrictions for the fully vaccinated, but require vaccination certificates for many businesses and for workers in public-facing roles like education, nursing, and hospitality.
At the end of the month, the government will confirm its decision to move Auckland into the new traffic light system. The city will initially move into red, the highest level in the traffic light. The rest of the country will also move into the framework at the same time. Parts of the country with lower vaccination rates will move into red, which has greater protections that the current alert level 2 system, Ardern said.
With some regions still lagging on vaccination rates, New Zealanders can expect the virus to become endemic by the end of the year, according to epidemiologist Michael Baker.
“You’re going to see the virus seeded everywhere. Then it’s a matter of the extent to which the combination of vaccine levels, the traffic light system and contact tracing can keep up.”
Baker said the South Island may be better protected, given the requirements for vaccine passports on flights and ferries, but summer travel around the North Island is likely to lead to widespread transmission. “It’s gonna be quite a busy period for overworked public health workers.”
Baker was particularly worried about Māori and Pasifika, who have lower overall vaccination rates.
Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen said: “I’m feeling resigned to the government’s changes – more loosening leads to more spread, with the greatest impact upon whānau [family] with the least resources.”
Meanwhile, Te Pāti Māori (the Māori party) co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer launched their Covid-19 pandemic response policy, calling for an end to government vaccine mandates, keeping the international borders closed until the Maori vaccination rates hit 95%, and establishing an independent Māori Pandemic Response Group.
The party believes mandates are an important tool, but wants Māori to decide for themselves whether to adopt mandates in their own iwi (tribe), whānau (family) and communities.
“Every piece of advice given by tāngata whenua [people of the land] over the course of this pandemic has been ignored by this government…Their blatant willingness to ignore Māori health expert advice is committing us to beauracratic genocide,’” Ngarewa-Packer said.