Next steps in our COVID-19 response

Kia ora koutou katoa

Today I will set out our plan for the next steps in our COVID-19 response, including how the country will step into the new traffic light system ahead of Christmas, how Auckland’s boundary will change and what’s coming up next for the other core components in our management of COVID-19 such as community care and our testing and tracing regime.

We are in a new phase in our fight against COVID.

Delta is here, and we have changed our strategy to minimise the impact of it being present in our communities. 

Almost no country in the world has escaped Delta and New Zealand is no exception. But where we can be an exception is how well we minimise the virus and protect our people from it.

In the beginning, we had the elimination strategy. That was because there were no vaccines, and no medical treatments for COVID-19, and it was the best way to stop people getting sick and save lives. 

Elimination and the alert levels have served New Zealand well. It delivered the lowest number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the OECD, gave us sustained periods of days without restrictions and a strong economy that sees GDP rising and unemployment falling to historic low levels. But it was never intended as a forever strategy, and as time has gone on we have seen its limitations, and that vaccines do offer us the ability to change our approach.

Delta has required that. Since it arrived in August our approach had to shift to slowing the spread of the virus and drive up vaccinations as the best form of protection against COVID.

82 percent of New Zealanders are now fully vaccinated compared to just 23 percent three months ago, and by mid-December it’s expected to be around 90 percent.

That is phenomenal and I want to thank New Zealanders and our health workforce for those rates. 

It means the decisive action in August to go into lockdown was also the right thing to do, it has undeniably stopped the spread of the virus that otherwise could have moved through the country very quickly.

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been incredibly tough going. I know that people are tired from our COVID fight. Particularly the people and businesses of Auckland, and Waikato.

We now have the unique advantage though of moving to the next phase of managing COVID-19 with a highly vaccinated population, and with a plan.

Our plan is a simple one; to carefully reopen while continuing to protect New Zealanders lives and livelihoods.

Today I will step out some key components of the plan.

On November the 29th Cabinet will confirm the decision to move Auckland into the new traffic light system system.

As we have already signalled we expect that move to occur soon after Cabinet meets and that Auckland will initially move into Red, the highest level in the traffic light.

At that same meeting, Cabinet will confirm that the rest the country will move into the framework at the same time as Auckland. 

With safety and minimising the spread of the virus in mind I can also confirm that Cabinet will look to move those areas with lower vaccination levels into the traffic light system at Red. This will add protections and hopefully also support an increase in vaccinations.

As I said earlier in the week the traffic light system is safer than the alert levels. For example, currently in a region at Level 2 everyone can go to a hospitality setting, vaccinated or not, with the Level 2 key restrictions of seated and separated.

However, at Red in the new framework, you’ll also have to be vaccinated which adds an extra layer of protection.

We have worked hard to get as many people vaccinated as possible. The response from New Zealanders has been incredible – 91 percent first dose and 82 per cent fully vaccinated. We know there are some still making the decision over when to be vaccinated – but we need to make decisions now that will protect them and others.

And that’s a very important point I want to highlight. The new system recognises disparities in vaccination rates and risk of the virus to vulnerable communities.

The Government is working with Iwi leaders and Maori health providers to keep pushing the Maori vaccination campaign. We remain committed to working with and supporting those who are hesitant about getting the vaccine and our job isn’t done until everyone who can gets the chance to be vaccinated. But the framework helps protect unvaccinated people in the meantime by minimising spread.

All in all, the traffic light system is better designed for our new strategy to minimise and protect against COVID-19, and is more fit for purpose than the alert levels. It also offers greater incentives to be vaccinated and greater protections for both those who are and aren’t. That’s why it’s time to get ready to move.

Aucklanders have faced restrictions for an extended period of time to keep the rest of New Zealand safe. But the time is coming to change the way it works to allow all New Zealanders to reconnect with one another over summer as safely as possible.

Today I can announce that from the 15th of December people travelling out of Auckland who have either been fully vaccinated, or have a negative test 72 hours prior to departure, will be able to leave Auckland and visit other parts of the country.

This means you will be able to enter or leave Auckland for any reason.

The requirement to be tested or vaccinated before departure will be in place for the core summer period of the 15th of December to the 17th of January.

As always Police will have the operational discretion on the enforcement of these rules. It is intended that people breaking the rules will face an infringement fine of $1,000.

A significant amount of movement happens across the country during this period, so we have added this safety net to reduce spread but have also been pragmatic. We set for instance drink driving laws with penalties, expect them to be upheld, and Police undertake random spot checks on our roads to ensure they are. We will take the same approach here.

On the northern boundary, and the gateway to Northland, the police will work with iwi to ensure people can move, but also that the people of Northland have confidence in the checks that are in place.

Checks for travellers out of Auckland Airport will be done at check-in. As you know, Air New Zealand have also made a vaccine certificate or test a requirement before you fly, and these requirements begin on the 15th of December also.

We will also be enabling inter-island ferries to require proof of vaccination or a negative pre-departure test in order to travel between Wellington and Picton.

As you can see we have given special consideration to the South Island. The combination of the vaccine or testing requirement for Air New Zealand combined with the ability for the inter-islander to operate the same regime will mean all entry points to the South Island will be well covered checks to stop any potential spread to the South.

This is a significant shift for New Zealanders, but we have a plan and you can build your own one too. Get your Vaccine Pass ready and continue to follow public health guidance.

Cabinet is making a number of decisions in the coming weeks that are about preparing for the shift to the traffic light framework.

Earlier today Minister Hipkins provided details on how people can access their My Vaccine Pass. The vaccine pass is your ticket to summer and an essential under the traffic light system, so get ready by downloading it today.

Minister Little, Sepuloni and Verrall will set out how testing, contact tracing, care in the community and social support will be provided for those who get COVID. With fewer people needing hospital treatment because of vaccination it’s important that the model of case identification and community care is robust to ensure everyone is well looked after and we reduce the risk of onward spread.

And we will also release detailed individual sector guidance for the new traffic light system. This has been worked through in detail over the course of many weeks, in consultation with different sectors.

In closing, I thank New Zealanders for their ongoing efforts to rise to the challenges of the pandemic. We adopted some of the most stringent tools to eliminate the outbreak of the virus and we succeeded.

Our Alert Level system helped us to avoid the worst of it, allowing us the ability to vaccinate our people before Delta reached many.

We now have an updated plan to protect ourselves this summer, starting with high vaccination rates, My Vaccine Pass, and our new framework. 

It has been a year, two years, of constant change caused by a pandemic. But we’ve had a plan. And it has carried us through.

And while this may be our toughest period to date, we are well set up with our new plan to carry us through the next stage.

While I know there will be some who will think our moves to fast, others too slow, I have no doubt that it is the best plan to keep us as safe and free as possible, to transition us safely to a new way of managing COVID.