Covid 19 delta outbreak: Businesses call for split traffic light levels in Northland

Northland business owners are calling for parts of the region with high vax rates to be moved into the orange traffic light setting without delay so they’re not ”held to ransom” by low jab areas.

Earlier this week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the entire country — except for Northland — would shift to the orange level from 11.59pm on December 30. The traffic light settings would next be reviewed on January 17.

Ardern said the government was being cautious with Northland, which has the lowest vaccination rate in New Zealand.

As of yesterday 81 per cent of Northlanders were fully vaccinated while 87 per cent had their first jab. Another 4115 need to get their first dose to hit the government’s 90 per cent target.

Previously Tairawhiti had the country’s lowest rate but it overtook Northland in recent weeks.

However, Riki Kinnaird, co-owner of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, said the traffic light system failed to recognise that Northland was a huge region with widely varying vaccination rates.

In parts of the Bay of Islands and Whangārei first-dose rates are as high as 94 per cent, according to Ministry of Health data.

”The traffic light system was supposed to be smart but Northland is a massive place. It’s not good enoughto segregate the whole top part of the island off when the Bay of Islands has a wonderful vaccination rate. You could keep areas like that open for trading. It’s disappointing because the system’s not being used in a smart way.”

Northland had previously been split into different alert levels, which proved it could be done.

”We’ve worked really really hard to set ourselves up for the traffic light system. We’ve had our people vaccinated, we’ve got more staff and we’ve reduced capacity to fit the 100-seat model, so we’ve spent more to get less. We’ve done that because that’s what we’re told to do by the government, but what’s the point of the traffic light system if places like ours can’t trade in orange when our vaccination rates are high?”

Kinnaird believed Aucklanders would opt to head south for their holidays to orange areas where they would feel welcome and, for example, be able to dance on New Year’s Eve.

Under the red light setting restaurant patrons were supposed to stay seated, he said.

In Kerikeri Judy Hyland runs the Old Packhouse Market, one of the town’s main weekend attractions.

She has had to split the market into different sectors to ensure at least some stalls, such as those selling produce, are accessible to everyone. The decision to leave only Northland in red was ”really disappointing” and would affect the incomes of 90 stallholders.

In the orange setting the number of customers would be unlimited as long as they could show a vaccine pass, while numbers were now limited to 100 at a time. Those who wouldn’t get vaccinated were being selfish, she said.

”None of us really wanted to get vaccinated but we did it to protect everyone, and now they’re holding businesses to ransom.”

Meanwhile, the Bay’s biggest musical event — the Bay of Islands Music Festival — is still scheduled to go ahead on January 29 with Salmonella Dub featuring Tiki Taane as the headline act.

Organiser Jackie Sanders said the artists were ”amping” to play but with the next traffic light announcement due on January 17 and the show unable to proceed in red, the next month would be a nail-biting time.

Fans would get a full refund if the show had to be cancelled, and a refund or new tickets if it was postponed.

Sanders also called for parts of Northland with high vax rates to be dropped to orange.

”It’s a large geographical area and those of us who’ve done the right thing are being held to ransom by a few. It’s really disappointing. We need to be open and we can do it safely.”

Cancelling would have significant knock-on effects, with 60 rooms booked in Paihia for performers and crew, and many out-of-towners expected to come to the show.

Paihia had already lost Waitangi Day, when the entire town was normally booked out.

”It’s a real shame. I feel heartbroken for affected businesses.”

Four other concerts earlier in the month had been postponed, Sanders said.

Katchafire’s Waitangi and Carrington Estate gigs on January 4-5 had been moved to Easter, while the Broods — originally due to play at Zane Grey’s in Paihia and Carrington on January 6-7 — were now expected to perform during Waitangi weekend.

The organisers of Northern Bass, a December 29-31 festival at Mangawhai, have postponed the event to January 28-30.

Kinnaird said the impact of Covid-19 measures on tourism and hospitality were masked in Northland’s overall economic statistics because other sectors such as manufacturing and forestry were doing well.

The Duke was currently at 30 per cent occupancy when it would normally be 90-100 per cent.

”We’ve got scale so we’ll get through. The real impact is on mum-and-dad businesses. There’s no cash in the bank, international tourism is miles away, and now their one shot at summer is gone. It’ll still be good, it just won’t be enough to get them through winter.”

A spokesman for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said it was possible the Covid-19 Protection Framework — also known as the traffic light system — could be applied in future on a sub-regional basis in the same way as the previous alert level system, with different parts of a region at different settings, or colours.

”While vaccination coverage is a key consideration in deciding upon a shift between colours, it is one of many factors considered. Other health factors, such as the transmission of Covid-19 within the community and its impacts on key populations, health and disability system capacity, and testing, contact tracing and case management capacity, are also considered,” he said.

Any shift from red to orange would depend on pressure on the health system and whether the risk to vulnerable populations could be managed within the restrictions.

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