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Businesses leaders are fuming at 17 more days in the pandemic red zone, while there are fears a planned loosening of international border restrictions next month may be pushed back.
The Government yesterday said all regions in the red Covid-19 response setting, except Northland, will move to the less restrictive orange mode at 11.59pm on December 30.
And it signalled plans to end mandatory stays in MIQ facilities for some international returnees next month could be reviewed due to the spread of the Omicron variant.
And though thousands of Kiwis are now looking forward to a less restrictive New Years’ celebration, Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett said being stuck in red meant the country’s biggest city will suffer a “summer of pain”.
The regional boundary is opening at 11.59pm tonight. Barnett said multiple pandemic response measures including rapid antigen testing, scanning, and vaccine passports were in use.
“It does not make sense,” he said after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the new settings at the post-Cabinet press conference.
“We’ve done everything we can, yet we’re stuck at a restrictive red light while modellers promote wild extremes of forecasts and count the days of an infection cycle.”
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Taupō mayor David Trewavas said not moving to orange until December 30 would impact the Taupō Race Meeting quite severely as it was to be held on that day.
It would also restrict what companies did for Christmas due to the limits around venue numbers, he told RNZ.
“We will certainly look forward to the 30th – it would have been nice to be earlier, but we will take it.”
Trewavas said already 90 per cent of people in the district had received their first dose of the vaccine and they were not far away from the second with 84 per cent of people in the district fully vaccinated.
“People have really rallied to the cause, they understand the businesses are struggling and all that sort of thing.”
Local tourism and hospitality operators were ready for Aucklanders, but he thought people would see their loves ones first and then think about a few days in Taupō.
Ardern on orange moves
Ardern said recent daily case numbers were lower than the roughly 200 modellers in early November had expected.
The Ministry of Health yesterday reported 101 new cases, and 61 people with the virus in hospital.
But that was no prelude to any announcement about a traffic light shift before Christmas.
Instead, the PM said a decision to change settings on Thursday December 30 was based on the virus transmission cycles, or blocks, of two weeks.
She indicated earlier yesterday the Government wished to better understand how these fortnightly cycles might impact the outbreak’s evolution.
Hospitality NZ president Jeremy Smith said the sector was hoping for a move to orange much sooner than the end of the month.
He had sympathy for colleagues in Auckland and the red belt stretching southwest from Gisborne, Ōpōtiki and Whakatāne to Whanganui and Rangitīkei.
He said that in Wellington, moving from level 2 in the old system to orange in the new had inspired more people to go out.
The accommodation sector was still quiet but at least bars and restaurants were busy, Smith said.
Two weeks before New Year’s at a less restrictive light setting would have lifted the fortunes of the hospitality sector, Smith said.
“If you’re not a beach venue, January’s a pretty quiet time.”
Auckland mayor Phil Goff said the looming Omicron variant and rising case numbers in Australia might have necessitated a later orange setting.
“While the hospitality sector would like to have seen the move sooner, the Government has balanced the health advice it has received with the desire to see a further relaxation of restrictions,” Goff said.
He said with more than 90 per cent of eligible Aucklanders fully vaccinated, a decline in new case numbers, and hospitals coping, he’d hoped to reach orange before Christmas.
“While it is a more than two-week wait before we move to orange, in the meantime most Aucklanders will be able to enjoy retail shopping and going out for a coffee, a drink or a meal,” he said.
“From this Wednesday, they will also have the freedom to move outside of Auckland.”
Northland will enter the new year as the odd one out, with concerns over low vaccination rates cited in yesterday’s announcement.
Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai said she understood the need to lift vaccination rates, but was still disappointed, and consistency with other regions would be preferable.
“It’s going to feel like the party’s in Auckland. But it’s a party-pooper up here.”
Mai said it would have been “kinder” to the north’s economy if it was shifted to orange.
It’s expected Cabinet will not adjust light settings again until Monday January 17.
Ministry of Health data yesterday showed Northland had the lowest vaccination rates of DHB areas, with 87 per cent of eligible people partly vaccinated and 81 per cent fully vaccinated.
Nationwide, about 94 per cent of eligible adults have had one dose, and almost 90 per cent are double jabbed.
Meanwhile, Ardern said police alone had authority to set up any checkpoints to check the vaccination status of travellers.
Police will decide how to operate checkpoints, who if anybody else to work with at checkpoints, and will take into account traffic flows.
The PM said the vast majority of Aucklanders were vaccinated, so will just need to carry proof of vaccination to move through the border.
As for New Zealand’s border, the PM said a decision on reopening will be reviewed when more information on Omicron is available in early January.
Ardern said the South Island was well placed to move to the green light perhaps next month.
“One of the big adjustments that comes from orange to green is the ability to have a larger number of people together who are both vaccinated and unvaccinated,” she said.
“And right now, while we transition, I believe quite a few people in the South Island would like the comfort that they know they are around vaccinated individuals.”
Te Pūnaha Matatini Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said the new traffic light system effects were not known well enough to move Auckland into orange.
“Obviously it has been a very big change for Auckland with bars, restaurants and cafes opening,” he said.
“We need to check that isn’t going to produce [a] big increase in the number of cases.”
He said if cases numbers were stable, the shift to orange just before the New Year’s would be prudent.
Plank was unsurprised Northland was staying at red, as the region was vulnerable to Covid-19 spreading to remote and vulnerable communities.
National Party leader Chris Luxon said the Government should move Auckland to orange immediately, not in another two-and-a-half weeks.
Act Party leader David Seymour said Ardern had put the Covid-19 response “on autopilot” and the next fortnight would impose heavy costs on people in red regions.
“That cost is put onto them simply because the Prime Minister doesn’t want the tiny risk she’ll have to reverse her decision.”
He said Aucklanders had been through enough and the metropolis was now one of the most vaccinated cities in the world.
Additional reporting: Miriam Burrell, Zoe Holland and Otago Daily Times
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