The unanswered questions and variables in the Government’s traffic light system mean it’s still highly possible vaccination targets will be ditched in favour of a freedom date, writes political editor Jo Moir

It came as no great surprise when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the country would win freedom when a 90 percent vaccination rate is reached.

Despite best efforts to avoid talking about targets, the day the Director-General of Health Doctor Ashley Bloomfield decided to stop beating around the bush and put a number on it, it became clear that was the milestone.

What’s been less clear in recent days was whether the Government was prepared to put a target on Māori, who are falling behind on vaccination across several DHBs.

Newsroom can confirm some ministers at the Cabinet table did ask for a 90 percent vaccination target for Māori, but ultimately Ardern made the call to be realistic.

The country is growing tired of waiting and some regions are so highly vaccinated now there would be outright public mayhem if everyone had to wait for Māori to hit 90 percent.

It’s always been lose-lose for Māori Ministers with a seat in Government, because calling for a target would lead to Māori being blamed for holding the rest of the country ransom, but not calling for it will ultimately lead to a horrible fate for many of their people.

They chose to fight for their people but the consensus from Cabinet was to back the majority of New Zealanders who have done their bit and been vaccinated.

In years to come when a full inquiry is done into the Government’s Covid response, the executive summary will observe the obvious – the drive to get Māori vaccinated was too little too late.

It doesn’t take into account the incredibly institutionalised realities for why the Māori vaccination rate is what it is.

But when you’ve got businesses rightly pleading with the Finance Minister, Aucklanders battling with the social and mental costs associated with 10 weeks in lockdown and the whole South Island demanding common sense, the long list of reasons why Māori should – for once – not be left behind become secondary in what is ultimately a political decision.

Everything including the kitchen sink is now being thrown at Māori vaccination – $120 million was announced on Friday, half of which will be available next week for community iwi and Māori health providers to get into the most difficult-to-reach communities.

This announcement is an admission the Government got it wrong when it swung funding away from the providers and handed it to DHBs, who in some cases actively blocked community organisations from accessing what they needed to get jabs in arms.

In years to come when a full inquiry is done into the Government’s Covid response, the executive summary will observe the obvious – the drive to get Māori vaccinated was too little too late.

If the urgency seen in the last three weeks had been in place in March, when kuia and kaumatua were diligently doing their bit and getting vaccinated, the statistics would look quite different.

If iwi and Māori providers had been tooled up, mobilised, and given the freedom to vaccinate anyone they wanted, anywhere they wanted, at any time and any cost, the picture would be far less bleak.

But that didn’t happen, and the Government isn’t one to spend time looking in the rear-view mirror, so now the race is on to get Māori rates up as high as possible before Christmas to minimise the damage done to some of our most vulnerable communities.

What this all means of course is the best way to protect Māori now is if the rest of the country hits a gold standard of vaccination.

Ardern’s traffic light system has three stages of restrictions or freedoms (depending on whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated).

It also has three target audiences – Auckland, the South Island, and the rest of the country.

Auckland has been doing the hard yards in higher alert levels for more than two months now and to pay back that favour, those living in the largest city have the first opportunity to use the traffic light system.

All three DHBs within Auckland need to individually hit a 90 percent fully vaccinated target, and once that happens the region will move onto the red traffic light where those vaccinated will once again enjoy hospitality, gatherings, events and gyms.

The hard border around Auckland will stay in place, because that continues to be the best line of defence for keeping Covid mostly in one place.

But while Auckland works towards that 90 percent target, ministers will work out a system that will eventually allow those who are vaccinated to travel to other parts of the country where vaccination is also high.

The South Island has its own path too. If every DHB gets to 90 percent, then ministers will consider moving the whole island to orange on the traffic light system.

For vaccinated Southerners, that will mean mostly normal life with some public health restrictions around mask wearing and social distancing.

Both Auckland and the South Island’s freedom will be reviewed in five weeks (to give those unvaccinated time to get on board).

Where things are a little bleaker is the rest of the country.

For all other regions to move to orange on the traffic light system, every single region must hit 90 percent.

This is because the ability to police borders from region to region is a logistical nightmare – the South Island has the advantage of having a sizeable strait separating it from the rest of the country.

Those living in Wellington will have heard Ardern’s announcement and desperately despaired at the thought of their fate being tied to every other DHB in the North Island, except for Auckland.

Ministers know as Christmas approaches that this position will become more and more difficult to defend, and for that reason a date where the country opens up regardless is still on the Cabinet table.

Alternatively, if regions are inching close to 90 percent it might be that the Government says that’s good enough but creates bespoke lockdowns or borders for some communities within certain regions where vaccination rates are still woefully low.

That would switch the punishment of isolation to the community responsible, and away from the communities who have put in the effort to get vaccinated.

The Government might find itself having to consider it for Auckland too if, for example, Counties Manukau (which Newsroom understands is at 85 percent first dose vaccinated) can’t get itself quite up to 90 percent fully vaccinated but, say, the other two DHBs do.

The traffic light system has provided some clarity for businesses but is completely hamstrung by the willingness of the vaccine hesitant to be part of the team of five million.

If public pressure isn’t enough to get people across the line in the next couple of months, ministers will have no choice but to say they tried their best and put a date on opening up – accepting the health system’s ability to cope will be well and truly tested.

Don’t expect too much looking in the rear-view mirror if that turns out to be the case.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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