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The 'traffic light' framework for NZ's Covid response will replaces the alert system.
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsOctober 22, 2021

How NZ’s new traffic light Covid-19 vaccine target system works

The 'traffic light' framework for NZ's Covid response will replaces the alert system.
Image: Archi Banal

The new framework for Covid restrictions has been unveiled by the prime minister at the Beehive. Here’s everything you need to know.  

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So is this the end of alert levels?

In a word, yes. But not yet. 


Basically, when every district health board in the country reaches 90% double vaccinated. But Auckland can move out of its current never-ending lockdown when each of the three DHBs – that’s Auckland City, Waitematā and Counties Manukau – reaches 90%.

What will Auckland move to?

The red setting. As the prime minister announced this morning, that means the virus is spreading in a way that means we need to take action to protect the most vulnerable and to prevent pressure on the health system. 

What does this red setting mean? Is it basically lockdown?

By no means. The red setting, which comes into place when the health system is facing an unsustainable number of hospitalisations and action is needed to protect at-risk populations, means hospitality and retail can open, but there will be limits on gathering sizes and physical distancing measures required.

Schools will open, but with public health measures in place. 

Working from home will be encouraged, and masks will be mandated in the settings where they are now. 

As Jacinda Ardern said, “It will still feel like a huge amount of freedom relative to what Auckland has now.”

Will there be any lockdowns going forward?

Potentially. While a nationwide level four is off the cards, Ardern said smaller, regional lockdowns are still a tool in the kit. “Localised lockdowns will still be an option if we see a rapid growth in cases in areas with high levels of unvaccinated people.”

How far off is Auckland from reaching 90% double dosed?

As of the Ministry of Health’s Wednesday update, all three Auckland DHBs are at 89.1% (16,000 vaccines away from hitting 90%, according to the prime minister), and 72.8% for second doses.   

Cool, but when will Aucklanders be able to leave the city and travel around the country?

Decisions are yet to be made on whether people could move out of Auckland when it is in the traffic light framework and the rest of the country still in the alert level system, but they are working on a system which would require vaccine certificates and a testing regime, said Ardern. “It is a significant logistical challenge … but we expect for the holiday period, people will want to be reunited, we have set ourselves a goal to try and establish whether or not this will be possible in time for those milestones.”

So has the three-step plan to move Auckland out of level three been dumped?

Not necessarily. A couple of weeks ago, Auckland moved into step one of the plan – we can have double-bubble outdoor catch-ups, do outdoor exercise classes and send our kids to early childhood learning centres, basically. The second step would allow retail outlets to open, with masks and physical distancing, as well as public facilities such as pools and zoos, and up to 25 people to gather outside.

“We have a collective goal now – but in the meantime, we will keep assessing the settings we have, and if it’s safe to do so, use the step downs we have already talked about,” said Jacinda Ardern during her speech announcing the traffic light system. Responding to a question on the subject, Ardern added: “Until Auckland moves we’ll keep using [the steps]. So we won’t have a situation where Auckland is just waiting for this framework.”

The next review of the current exit plan is due on Tuesday, after the long weekend.

How will I know when my region hits 90%?

Until today, the Ministry of Health published vaccine data by DHB only once a week, with the latest update being on Wednesday. They have pledged to now publish that data daily, and you’ll get all the details from your friendly local Spinoff live updates.

So when my region hits 90%, we can move?

Sadly no. The rest of the country must wait for every DHB to hit 90%. At that point, the country will move collectively to the orange setting. That means everything remains open and gathering limits can lift because vaccine certificates will be in place. Those businesses that choose not to use them, however, will have to close or operate with public health measures in place. 

So even the South Island has to wait for the whole country?

Not necessarily. Ardern said the government would consider moving Te Waipounamu to orange before the rest of the country if the DHBs there hit the 90% target before everyone else.

What will this orange setting entail?

Orange kicks in when there’s increasing community transmission with increasing pressure on the health system. “Whole of health system is focusing resources but can manage – primary care, public health, and hospitals. Increasing risk to at risk populations.”

Record keeping/scanning will of course be required, face coverings will be mandatory on flights, public transport, taxis, retail, public venues, and encouraged elsewhere. Public facilities will be open with capacity limits based on 1m distancing, as will retail.

Workplaces will be open and education will be open with public health measures in place. Specified outdoor community events will be allowed

You’ve mentioned red and orange. Might there also be a green setting?

Clearly you’ve seen a traffic light before! Yes, there is a green setting, which we’ll move to when there is some Covid in the community but it’s at low levels. Fully vaccinated people can enjoy pretty much normal life.

Record keeping/scanning will be required, and face coverings will be mandatory only on flights, but encouraged in other indoor settings.

How do vaccine certificates fit in here?

They’re pretty important, and use of them will entail how businesses operate.

Even at the green setting, if vaccination certificates aren’t used, there will be limits of 100 people, with 1m distancing and seated and separated, in hospitality venues, at gatherings (weddings, marae, places of worship), events and gyms.

In close contact businesses that don’t use vaccine certificates, staff must wear face coverings and customers must be distanced.

At the orange setting, hospitality venues that don’t use vaccine certificates will have to operate contactlessly, like at the current level three, and gatherings will be limited to 50 people, distances. Close contact businesses, events and gyms won’t be able to operate unless they use vaccine certificates.

At the red setting, if vaccine certificates aren’t used, hospitality will have to be contactless and gatherings will be limited to 10 people. As with orange, close contact businesses, events and gyms are not allowed to operate. Tertiary education will have to be distance learning only.

Will any financial assistance kick in when we’re at red?

Yes. Finance minister Grant Robertson this morning said he will be proposing financial support targeted at the most affected businesses when the red setting is in place.

“One of the issues that we are working through is what to do in terms of businesses who decide not to be part of the vaccine certificate regime,” he said. “If we used the current settings based on revenue drops we may well end up supporting them, but not those who are using certificates.

“It is my personal preference that any payment will not be made available to those businesses that should be operating a vaccine certificate regime but choose not to, however this requires further work to be operational.

“Across the board support will not be provided for areas designated as orange or green, because at these levels businesses will be able to operate as normal, with some requiring vaccine certificates to do so.”

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