The Prime Minister isn’t ruling out moving the whole country into the traffic light system when Cabinet meets this month. In an interview with Newsroom, she tells political editor Jo Moir that vaccine certificates can help nudge some of the unvaccinated across the line.

The traffic light system announced by Jacinda Ardern last month set out a future without alert level lockdowns, but only once 90 percent vaccination rates were met.

The new framework means greater freedoms for those who are vaccinated.

On Monday she gave a clear signal that Cabinet on November 29 would be aiming to move Auckland straight into the Covid protection framework, providing all three of the city’s district health boards were either at or near 90 percent fully vaccinated.

But in a sit-down with Newsroom on Thursday, Ardern didn’t rule out moving the whole country into the framework, despite the fact many DHBs won’t be at, or even near, a 90 percent vaccination rate.

Ardern says that’s because the Covid protection framework “could play a role in helping us drive rates up as well,’’ she told Newsroom.

In some parts of regional New Zealand, the unvaccinated are for the most part enjoying everyday freedoms and have little incentive to get jabbed – especially if they have no knowledge the traffic light system is even being introduced.

Ardern accepts the traffic light system, and its greater freedoms intentionally targeted at the vaccinated, provides a bit more incentive to get jabbed than Level 2 currently does.

“So, we haven’t made any decisions, but I do have in the back of my mind that that was the way in which it was designed to work.’’

The traffic light system is a tool that would allow the Government to move up and down through the framework depending on what was happening with the spread of the virus, while still allowing more movement for those who are vaccinated.

“I don’t want to leave a false impression that there won’t be times where we won’t need to be careful again.

“That’s the two jobs the vaccine certificates can help us with, and reduce the impact otherwise of blanket restrictions that don’t differentiate’’.

Opening up to Kiwis stuck abroad

Ardern says the priority in the first quarter of next year is allowing those double-vaccinated Kiwis overseas who can self-isolate at home to return to New Zealand shores.

Self-isolation is already being used by more than 1200 Covid positive cases in Auckland as the Government transitions away from putting all domestic cases and close contacts into managed isolation and quarantine.

That’s because as case numbers hit more than 200 a day, there is only limited capacity for those who have MIQ bookings to return from overseas along with those who can’t safely self-isolate.

Ardern says MIQ was set up initially for good reason, because those returning from overseas, before the border shut, weren’t always following the self-isolation rules and the risk of spread in the community became too high.

“Now we’re looking at how do we make that transition away from a highly-managed MIQ environment to somewhere where we can still have confidence it’s playing a role at home.’’

The self-isolation business trial underway at the moment is a way of testing the measures needed at home to ensure it’s as safe as possible.

“It won’t be absolutely failsafe – but we are transitioning into an environment where because we have vaccinated people, we can manage cases that may arise from not being 100 percent failsafe.

“On all the modelling you do still need to be able to reduce down the number of cases, because if you do have 20-30,000 people coming across your border every week, and you have no mitigation, then that just adds fuel to the fire.’’

Ardern says if the Government just lifts the lid on MIQ completely and only relies on vaccines and testing, “then the trade-off is you end up having more domestic public health measures daily’’.

“So, there’s no system where you can just allow everyone to come back in and then have really loose public health restrictions.

“You’ve got to have these combinations. So, what we’re working on is getting the combination that has, we hope, minimal impact on daily life but still allows people to return home more easily.’’

Jacinda Ardern says the lid won’t be lifted completely on MIQ but by early next year many vaccinated Kiwis living abroad will be able to come home and self-isolate. Photo: Robert Kitchin

Self-isolation for returning Kiwis will be staged, starting with those who can safely do so at home.

“We’ve been very clear it would be staged. We’re not just lifting the border and letting everyone in, because if we’re using self-isolation you have to focus on the people who have the ability to self-isolate, which is New Zealand citizens.’’

As to when the border will lift for vaccinated travel more broadly, Ardern says she wants to see the impact pulling a border lever for returning New Zealanders has domestically before going to the next stage.

“It’s interesting to me that the United States, who were amongst the first in the world to vaccinate, have only just started to ease border restrictions now. That’s because they’re seeing the domestic impacts each stage has, and we’ll have to do the same.’’

‘There’s no perfect answer’

Ardern sat down with Newsroom the morning after a visit to Auckland – the last time she was there was 85 days earlier when she learned Delta had arrived and immediately flew to Wellington to announce a nationwide lockdown.

She flew up on Tuesday night on the Defence Force plane, which was heading there from Wellington to drop off MIQ staff and returned on Wednesday afternoon to make APEC hosting commitments back in the capital.

Ardern undertook two visits in Auckland – one to an engineering company that had remained open during Level 3 and a second to a Pacific youth-lead vaccination event.

“Can you pick one business that is going to perfectly represent every experience all Aucklanders have had? No, so nor did we try.” – Jacinda Ardern

Asked if it was out-of-touch to use private air travel and visit a business that hadn’t felt the effects of being shut down for nearly three months, Ardern was quick to say absolutely not.

“Almost all my travel, with the rare exception that is usually because of a disaster, I travel commercially everywhere.

“Throughout this pandemic I have,’’ she said.

Air New Zealand scheduling and her need to be back in Wellington to host APEC meant “I essentially hitched a ride with the Defence Force, as they took MIQ workers up to Auckland’’.

The Employers and Manufacturers’ Association had chosen the business she visited.

“Can you pick one business that is going to perfectly represent every experience all Aucklanders have had? No, so nor did we try.

“That’s why we often use business representatives to try and get a range of views – you can’t ask one person to reflect all of that.’’

Jacinda Ardern speaks to those gathered at a Pacific youth-lead vaccination event in Auckland on Wednesday. Photo: Matthew Scott

Ardern said it was incorrect to assume she wasn’t talking to a range of affected businesses all the time, despite being based in Wellington for the last three months.

“I know I won’t please everyone in every decision. If I’d gone and visited a retailer you could have easily said I’d only gone back at that point for that reason.’’

Retail businesses were able to open their doors for the first time on Wednesday after Auckland shifted into Step 2 of the Level 3 alert system.

“There’s no perfect answer at this time. It’s hard, it’s hard for everyone, but we’ve also tried to hear everyone through this pandemic too.’’

Government’s handling of Covid

Ardern’s Labour Party has dropped 5 percent to 41 in this month’s Talbot Mills Research poll.

It’s the worst result the party’s seen since pre-Covid times in January last year.

“We’re moving into a new phase, and yes, it will take a period of adjustment, and it won’t always be easy, and it won’t be linear.” – Jacinda Ardern

The poll revealed those who saw the Government’s handling of Covid as good had slid from 60 percent last month to just 46 percent.

Those who thought the handling was poor had increased from 16 percent to 26 percent.

Ardern told Newsroom she saw the result as reflecting the reality of Covid, in particular Delta.

“It is very easy for everyone to agree that no Covid is a good thing, and if you’re able to achieve that then that’s a great thing, but there’s also an inevitability with a pandemic that changes in nature in the way Delta has changed it.’’

She says the change in strategy away from elimination has brought “different opinions and views as to that change in approach’’.

“As you change up what you’re doing there’s a range of people who will take different positions on that.’’

Ardern says being in the middle of a Delta outbreak is tough and she sees the poll result as a “reflection of that’’.

“We’re moving into a new phase, and yes, it will take a period of adjustment, and it won’t always be easy, and it won’t be linear.

“And, we’ve had to change things as we go. I’ve never expected that to be a perfect process,’’ she said.

Vaccines and mandates have changed the way people think about the Government’s handling of Covid too.

“It’s natural now that there are vaccines people will say let’s move in this direction and have nothing, and others will say they still want different layers of protection used.

“My job is to try and find the balance,’’ she said.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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