Thursday, 27 Jan 2022

Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Jacinda Ardern’s New Year’s present – except for Northlanders or the unvaccinated


The big New Year’s eve parties and events are on, unless you’re in Northland or unless you’re unvaccinated.

That’s the key takeaway for people around the country from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement in moving everywhere in the country bar Northland to the orange setting from December 31.

If vaccine passes are used, the 100-person limit on gatherings and events under red is lifted entirely for orange. Without vaccine passes at orange, the limit on gatherings is 50, but events are still banned.

Ardern is also inviting the vaccinated outside Northland to make grand New Year’s plans. While Cabinet is meeting next week, the next time ministers will consider traffic light settings will be in mid-January.

That isn’t to say that if things turn to custard, Covid ministers can’t convene a Zoom meeting and rejig the settings. But they would have to be extremely custardy, given that Ardern has provided as much certainty as possible over the summer break.

There is still much uncertainty on how much custard there will be over the summer months.

While it is clearly encouraging to see the daily case numbers in Auckland dropping, it’s still unclear how moving Auckland from level 3.2 to red has affected the outbreak.

Daily case numbers are expected to rise, given how red provides more avenues – especially indoor private gatherings – for the virus to spread. The great unknown is whether the numbers will become so great as to put the health system under pressure.

The impact of the move won’t start to be reflected in daily case numbers until the end of this week or the start of next week.

By then, Aucklanders’ travel ball and chain will have been clipped for those who are fully vaccinated or have had a negative test; more than 12,000 people are booked to fly out of Auckland on Wednesday.

The travel date was set knowing that it would kick in before seeing the effect of moving Auckland out of 3.2.

This was essentially Ardern’s vote of confidence in the readiness of the system – from vaccinations to testing to contact-tracing to home isolation – to dampen any new outbreaks around the country.

Yesterday was a further endorsement of that confidence. While the impact of a looser Auckland boundary may start to become evident when everywhere bar Northland moves to orange, the latter is not conditional on what happens with the former.

The end of the year is now when Cabinet has decided, on the back of director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s advice, that vaccination rates will be high enough to jettison the relative protections of red.

Ardern will have also considered the expectations of the wider public, who are wanting a classic Kiwi summer and can see that 89 per cent of eligible people are now fully vaccinated.

The reasonable exception is Northland, where 20,000 eligible people (including 9000 Māori) are still unvaccinated, and will likely still be vulnerable at the end of the year.

It’s true that the coverage among eligible people in Tairāwhiti (81 per cent full vaccinated) is similar to Northland – but the population is a quarter of the size, and only 4500 eligible people are unvaccinated.

It’s also true that there are about 28,000 eligible people in Waitemata who are unvaccinated, as well as 30,000 in Counties-Manukau.

But the proportional coverage (92 per cent fully vaccinated in Waitemata, 90 per cent in Counties-Manukau) makes their move to orange less risky than in Northland.

Yesterday’s announcement is still not without risk.

It will increase the nerves among Māori health leaders, who have repeatedly seen the Government shorten their timetable to boost coverage for eligible Māori (75 per cent fully vaccinated, and 86 per cent with one dose) before restrictions are eased.

It will increase the nerves in already nervous communities in Tairāwhiti and eastern Bay of Plenty, where some community leaders have asked Aucklanders to stay away over summer.

Restrictions in those areas will now be eased in the middle of the holiday period, when incoming holiday traffic will be at its peak.

Any outbreaks in those regions will have a bigger head start than if those regions had stayed in red for a few more weeks.

It’s also not without political risk: The last thing Ardern will want is to have to move a region back into red.

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