Swathes of the North Island will enter the most restrictive setting in the country’s new Covid-19 protection framework, taking effect on Friday.
Northland, Auckland, and parts of the central and eastern North Island will go into the ‘Red’ setting, while the lower North Island and all of the South Island will go into ‘Orange’. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said no regions will enter the least restrictive ‘Green’ setting until at least next year, as the Government aims to increase vaccination rates.
The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.
Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Epidemiologist, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:
“The key issue with the traffic light system is that it’s designed around incentivising New Zealanders to get vaccinated. It’s significantly underpowered for meaningful prevention of Covid-19 outbreaks. That’s a major and concerning gap in our pandemic response just now as we await further information on the omicron variant.
“What is needed now is a system that’s centred on protecting health and wellbeing and is informed at every level by the science of preventing airborne transmission. We can control Covid-19 if we choose to. Our Covid response system should protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated, including children, and it should be explicitly designed to be equitable and to uphold Te Tiriti. Only a system built in that way from first principles will be able to adapt to whatever the pandemic throws up next.
“We’d be in a far better place today with something like the Alert Levels upgrade that my colleagues and I proposed earlier this year. It’s designed to be future-proof so that it can protect against new Covid-19 variants, fading vaccine protection, the unpredictable return of familiar infections, and the next pandemic that may be just around the corner. We need well-designed legacy infrastructure that can navigate us safely through the pandemic and provide enduring protection against future threats. It’s exhausting and inefficient for the Government to have to wrestle with a succession of quick-fix policies that need to be revised the moment there’s a new development in the pandemic.”
No conflict of interest.
Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:
“The government is taking a district-by-district approach to the new traffic light system, based on a combination of vaccine coverage, transmission rates, and potential health impact. Parts of the North Island that are battling active outbreaks or have low vaccination rates will start at red. This will mean things will continue to feel similar to level 2 for people who are fully vaccinated, but life will be more restricted for unvaccinated people.
“For Auckland, the move to red will mean a significant loosening of restrictions. This is a reasonable move given the length of time Aucklanders have been at level 3, good vaccination rates across the city, and the fact that cases have levelled off and hospitalisations remain at manageable levels.
“The lower North Island and all of the South Island will start at orange. This will effectively remove gathering size limits provided vaccine passes are used, although masks will still be required. Areas moving to orange generally have reasonable vaccination rates and don’t have established community outbreaks. The big exception to this is that most of Waikato is set to move to orange despite a stubborn outbreak including ongoing unlinked cases and low vaccination rates in some areas. The decision to allow looser restrictions in these areas increases the risk of superspreading events fuelling this outbreak.
“The government has moved to the new traffic light system nationally earlier than it originally promised, which was when all DHBs had fully vaccinated 90 per cent of their eligible populations. This has been justified in part by the additional protections offered by the use of vaccine passes. However, in moving to the new system we must not lose sight of the fact that we still have big gaps in our vaccine coverage. The virus will find and exploit these gaps so we must redouble our efforts to fill them.”
Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.
Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:
“Announcements were made today about the new COVID-19 protection framework for Aotearoa NZ which indicated the specific settings that different parts of the country would move into. Parts of the upper and mid North Island would move into the Red setting, with the remainder of the North Island moving into the Orange setting, and the South Island shifting straight into Orange as well.
“Vaccination levels have increased across the country and this has been very encouraging, however vigilance is still needed. Areas remain in Aotearoa New Zealand where there is lower COVID-19 vaccination coverage. It is critical that vaccination levels continue to increase across age groups, geographic locations and all ethnic groups to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19.
“With more people eventually getting out and about and coming into close contact with each other, there’s a risk that this will promote and accelerate spread – especially for vulnerable groups. Care and caution will still be needed moving forward as Delta continues to spread across the country.
“There are those who haven’t yet been vaccinated because they can’t be vaccinated. This includes our children who still don’t yet have access to a vaccine that has been approved to keep them safe and protected from COVID-19. The best way to keep them safe right now is to ensure we’re vaccinated and also that others coming into contact with them are vaccinated also.
“A new variant of the virus is also being reported. Known as Omicron, this particular variant has been classified by the WHO as a variant of concern, and is one to watch at this time.
“Omicron has already been identified in a number of different countries already, and includes Australia. A high number of mutations have been reported with this particular variant that relate to the spike protein of the virus. The spike protein is used by the virus to enter our cells.
“There was immediate concern this variant might be more highly transmissible than Delta and might potentially cause more serious illness, hospitalisation and death. However, more evidence and information is needed at this time to determine exactly how Omicron will continue to behave and importantly, to determine whether or not our current COVID-19 vaccines can protect against this particular variant.
“In the meantime, a maintained focus on vaccination, border controls and public health settings will be needed. We’re continuing to experience the impact of Delta, particularly among the most vulnerable. Please get vaccinated and tested, and reach out to help others do the same.”
No conflict of interest declared.