Alert level shake-up with more freedom on way - Deputy PM

Author
NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 Sep 2021, 7:17AM

Alert level shake-up with more freedom on way - Deputy PM

Author
NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 Sep 2021, 7:17AM

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The Government is reviewing its alert-level system - and broader freedoms - as more Kiwis get vaccinated and with a new vaccine passport on the way. 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the Government was updating its work around the alert-level framework on the basis it had seen a terrific response to vaccination. 

"We want to push on 90 per cent plus, keep moving and open up a whole range of options for ourselves in the face of Delta," Robertson told The AM Show today. 

In early November there should be a vaccine passport that could be downloaded on people's phones. 

The app was being managed by the Ministry of Health which was working with private providers to develop it. 

Work was now under way of what an alert level framework would look like with a vaccine passport and announcements including requirements for it would be likely in the next few weeks. 

Act Party leader David Seymour told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking that Level 4 would be gone in its Covid package revealed today. "We need to start using isolation in a targeted way. The costs and benefits of isolating a whole city don't stack up with Delta." 

He said isolation should be reserved for people who had recently arrived in New Zealand and there would be an end to MIQ - people could instead do it at home. 

Robertson said today that public health officials were confident about the situation of the Covid outbreak in Auckland. 

He acknowledged that a lot of the cases were household contacts. 

"We're feeling positive about the direction of travel, but as we've said before, there's a long tail with Delta and that's what we're experiencing now," he told TVNZ's Breakfast. 

Robertson said the Government would not be making vaccinations mandatory. "The idea that we would go to a compulsory vaccination goes I think well beyond 
where New Zealand has ever been in this regard." 

New Zealand was doing well enough going without a mandatory vaccination rule. 

Robertson said the mandatory vaccination rule would be very unpopular among Kiwis and would present human rights issues. 

The way to get vaccination rates up would include ongoing initiatives already being seen in the community - including the new vaccination buses and Māori and Pasifika-led vaccination hubs - as well as ordinary people helping those in their own families who may still be hesitant about getting the jab. 

"I think this is the bit where every single one of us has a responsibility," he said. "Sit down and have that conversation with the person in our lives who's maybe a little hesitant ... who is just a bit worried and a bit confused about some info. 

"Each of us gets the chance to be a vaccine hero and go out and have that conversation. That's how we'll get there," Robertson said. 

Speaking about vaccine passports, he said that "technology" was being worked on alongside members of the business sector. 

Bypassing MIQ - the 150 pioneers 

A home-isolation trial for some business travellers has been welcomed as the "first crack" at reopening our borders - but an expert warns it could mean little if the "long tail" of Auckland's outbreak is not stamped out. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said self-isolation is being considered as a future option in advance of a highly vaccinated public. 

But, before the country gets to that stage a trial involving 150 fully vaccinated travellers who can bypass MIQ and isolate at home will start at the end of October and run for about six weeks. 

It would be coupled with a testing and monitoring regime and travellers wouldn't be able to leave their homes, or have anyone else there unless they too had travelled as part of the same party. 

Ardern said the move was an indication of where the Government wanted to go in the future. She was also looking at shorter periods of isolation for some. 

"All of this will help with the bottlenecks, which have kept our borders safe." 

The Government's self-isolation announcement has been welcomed with open arms by Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett, who predicted businesses "locked in New Zealand or marooned overseas and locked out of MIQ will leap at the opportunity" to participate in the trial. 

He said the pilot programme was "the first crack to open the borders safely" for struggling businesses "desperate to get back in the market". 

Barnett predicted there won't be any setbacks as a result of the trial, even as Auckland still battles to eliminate the latest Delta outbreak. 

"They have skin in the game and every business, especially the trailblazers of this trial, will want to show that they recognise that the ability to travel while New Zealand is living with restrictions to eliminate Covid is a privilege," he said. 

Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said it was good to see the self-isolation trial under way, but cautioned how much could be learned from it. 

"To really do a proper study you need to do it on a much bigger scale. This will be very low-risk, but it will show how the mechanics could work. 

"The real question will be how it works when scaled up to tens of thousands of people." 

He said low-risk countries to be involved could include Covid-free states in Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. 

The bigger question though was where New Zealand was at next year with the virus and if it was still circulating here, along with vaccination levels, he said. 

"If we are still in a situation of little or no transmission, so still elimination, compared to the endemic spread of the virus. Those things will determine our tolerance for the virus coming in." 

3000 MIQ rooms up for grabs 

Kiwis overseas hoping to get home will have another chance to secure a spot in managed isolation and quarantine, when 3000 rooms go up online. 

Pensioner Sue Hotu told TVNZ she had been trying to return to New Zealand from the Gold Coast since May. 

The first round of MIQ spots in the Government's new virtual lobby had not gone her way, when she logged on to find she was behind thousands of people in the virtual queue already. 

Hotu said she would be up again tonight, at 6pm NZT, hoping to get one of the 3000 rooms being made available. 

"There was about 11,000 something people in front of me ... and then it was just: 'Oh gosh, haven't got a hope in hell of getting a spot'. 

"Just sitting there for three hours, just waiting, and numbers going down - that was real hard," she said, becoming emotional. 

One thing Hotu called for was a better system that automatically connected an MIQ spot with a confirmed plane ticket. 

The way things are set up now means anyone who is successful at securing a room in MIQ must then try to secure a spot on a flight home. 

"It's crazy. If you've got 3000 MIQ spots, then there should be 3000 flight (tickets) that go with them - not try to find a spot after." 

Asked if she was feeling hopeful today, Hotu said she was just going to stay positive.24,710 doses on Sunday, September 26 

It is still not clear if the Auckland outbreak was under control and any effects of the change to level 3 would be seen in the coming days. 

Director-general of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the seven-day rolling average of Covid cases in NZ was now 15, compared with 17 last week and 19 the week before. 

"We are making progress. Many of our clusters are now considered to be contained, or clusters are dormant," Bloomfield said. 

Baker said it was clear the virus was now continuing to transmit among specific groups and there needed to be a much more targeted approach to stamping out the virus quickly. 

"We are on a knife-edge at the moment." 

Without a targeted approach, Baker said, Auckland could be hovering between level 2 and level 3 for some time. 

Act leader David Seymour criticised the length of time it has taken to trial self-isolation, saying nothing has changed in the past six months and the Government was being driven by public opinion research instead of science. 

"We should be up to thousands of travellers per week on a self-isolation scheme like this. The whole of Auckland has been self-isolating for the past seven weeks. Announcing 150 travellers will self-isolate after travelling is hardly news to them. 

"A business travel network was first proposed by Act in March as part of our Covid 2.0 paper when we said, 'The Business Travel Network would establish special requirements for business travellers to come here while safely managing the risk of Covid-19.'" 

He said Act's policy also had a traffic light system and special testing requirements. 

Meanwhile, the plan to reopen quarantine-free travel for RSE workers from the Pacific will start again with Vanuatu from early October, Ardern said. 

All those taking part from Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga would need at least one vaccine dose. 

Ardern said it allowed a trial of a "pseudo" form of shortened isolation for some travellers. 

RSE workers will also have to isolate for seven days on arrival, but this does not need to be done at an MIQ facility.