Auckland, Waikato and Northland must all wait a while longer for any move down from their current Covid levels, while Cabinet widens its vaccination mandate

The Government has announced a vaccine mandate for staff in the country’s health and education sectors, saying those working with vulnerable communities must take all precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The Cabinet decision comes as ministers decided to maintain the current Level 3 settings for Auckland, Waikato and Northland as the regions get to grips with the Delta variant.

Speaking to media, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was “clear to everyone that New Zealand is in one of the trickiest and most challenging moments in the Covid-19 pandemic so far”.

“However, there is a clear path forward over the coming months in which New Zealanders should be able to move to living with fewer restrictions and more freedoms as a result of higher levels of vaccination.”

Delta was “a different and more difficult opponent” than previous Covid-19 variants, with no country having yet succeeded in eliminating a Delta outbreak.

The R value, or reproduction rate, of the virus had “crept up a little” in Auckland in recent days, leading Cabinet to conclude the city should stay at its current Level 3 rules for another week.

While preliminary advice had suggested Auckland schools could reopen on October 18, further information from health officials had indicated a “heightened need for robust safety measures to be in place” so that reopening had been delayed.

Ardern said Waikato and Northland would also both remain at Level 3, although in those cases the extension was until 11.59pm on Thursday.

While there had been more than 23,000 Covid tests done in Waikato since the first case was identified, the public health team had asked for more time on the ground to ensure any spread had been contained.

In Northland, the lack of cooperation from the Auckland woman who had travelled through the region meant a move out of Level 3 was not viable, while a low testing rate in the last 48 hours was also a concern.

“Without clear information of exact places and locations the person travelled to we are relying on high rates of testing across the entire region, to give us the confidence we need that there isn’t any undetected community transmission.”

Vaccine mandate expanded

In addition to the alert level decisions, Cabinet also expanded vaccine mandates beyond MIQ and border workers to cover a wider range of employees.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced that high-risk workers in the health and disability sector would need to receive their first dose by the end of October and be fully vaccinated by December 1, while school and early learning staff who had contact with children would need to meet the same marks by November 15 and January 1 next year.

Hipkins said vaccination remained “our strongest and most effective tool to protect against infection and disease”, and as many workers as possible needed to be vaccinated so everyday services could be delivered with as little disruption as possible.

While most people working in the sectors were already fully or partially vaccinated, and exemptions could be made in some circumstances, the Government was not leaving anything to chance.

“It’s not an easy decision, but we need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated to take this extra step.”

Vaccinations were not yet approved for children under 12, while the health and disability sector had a range of high-risk occupations.

The health and disability sector mandate would cover GPs, pharmacists, community health nurses, midwives, paramedics, and all healthcare workers at sites where vulnerable patients were treated (including intensive care units).

It would also include some non-regulated healthcare work, such as aged residential care, home and community support services, kaupapa Māori health providers and non-government organisations which provided health services.

 Secondary schools and kura would also be required to keep a vaccination register for students, with those who did not produce evidence of vaccination considered unvaccinated.

For the education sector, from the start of 2022, schools and early learning services would need to maintain a vaccination register and ensure that only vaccinated staff had contact with children.

The mandate would include home-based educators, and support people such as teacher aides, administration and maintenance staff, and contractors.

Secondary schools and kura would also be required to keep a vaccination register for students, with those who did not produce evidence of vaccination considered unvaccinated.

All school employees in Auckland and other regions at Level 3 would have to return a negative Covid-19 test result before they could return to work.

Those who were not fully vaccinated in the period before January 1 would also be required to undergo weekly Covid-19 testing.

Hipkins said work was continuing on whether mandatory vaccinations would be required in the tertiary education sector.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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