New Zealand is moving into the next phase of the pandemic, where it’s hoped that high vaccination rates can keep hospitalisations and deaths down. Will it work? Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: Elimination bought us crucial time.

New Zealand enjoyed a pre-Covid lifestyle for 18 months longer than the rest of the world, give or take a national lockdown and a few regional ones. While wave after wave of Covid-19, eventually fuelled by ever more transmissible variants, slammed into populations overseas, we went to Six60 concerts and chatted maskless in cafes.

Then, in a matter of months, time sped up in New Zealand. We abandoned elimination once it was clear that Delta was here to stay, shifting instead to a harsh suppression strategy while we got vaccination rates up. Where other countries suffered mass death and hospitalisations, we locked down and kept our eyes on the prize.

New Zealand is now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Our 92 percent first dose rate and 85 percent second dose rate for those aged 12 and up are the envy of many other developed countries – and a pleasant surprise to ministers and officials who were crossing their fingers for 70 percent this time last year.

With our vaccine-induced immunity, comparatively high trust in Government and a new traffic light system, we now hope to move to the next phase of the pandemic. This is the long haul, a constant balancing act of easing restrictions as caseloads diminish, tightening them when the health system is threatened and above all continuing to vaccinate and boost so that the vast majority of the population is protected from severe outcomes from Covid-19.

The traffic light system was designed with this balancing act in mind. Three different levels, plus two categories – more freedoms for the vaccinated, fewer for the unvaccinated. When it comes into effect on Friday, we’ll get the first look at the new normal which will probably be here to stay for years, at a minimum.

The most important question remains unanswered, however: Will it work?

In other words, is the traffic light system robust enough to keep cases under control? Or will they balloon either over the summer or once people return to work and school, putting pressure on the health system and leading to avoidable deaths?

When presented with a draft of the traffic light system on October 14, health experts were broadly opposed to it.

“The group was near unanimous in its scepticism about this framework in its current form and our readiness to move in this direction in the near term, especially given the growing outbreak in Auckland and insufficient, albeit growing, vaccination levels amongst most population groups,” the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Dame Juliet Gerrard reported in notes on the meeting.

“The initial group reaction was that restrictions were not tight enough at any level, and that a move to green would not be possible in Auckland, or anywhere with active cases, in the forseeable future.”

The experts also told Gerrard and the Ministry of Health’s chief science advisor Dr Ian Town that there should be no move to the traffic light system before 90 percent of the eligible population was fully vaccinated, including for Māori. Just 85 percent of the eligible total population is vaccinated and Māori haven’t even reached 90 percent first doses in any District Health Board area.

Gerrard said that the final system New Zealand will enter is considerably strengthened, compared to the draft presented in mid-October.

Some experts are still concerned.

“The key issue with the traffic light system is that it’s designed around incentivising New Zealanders to get vaccinated. It’s significantly underpowered for meaningful prevention of Covid-19 outbreaks,” University of Otago epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig said.

“That’s a major and concerning gap in our pandemic response just now as we await further information on the Omicron variant. It’s exhausting and inefficient for the Government to have to wrestle with a succession of quick-fix policies that need to be revised the moment there’s a new development in the pandemic.”

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker, who was one of those against the system when introduced to it at the meeting, now says it may well be enough, so long as the Government is willing to use lockdowns in the event of emergencies.

But this is premised on the system being fully enforced. The foundation of the traffic light scheme is that vaccinated and unvaccinated people will largely be kept apart through the use of vaccine passes. In a surprise move last week, however, the Government weakened this foundation by saying that businesses will not be required to use the verification app to ensure passes are legitimate.

Baker said this undermines the system and defeats the point of having certificates at all. Digital contact tracing expert Andrew Chen agreed, saying that the system might not be effective if passes aren’t checked.

Even officials within the Ministry of Health are understood to be apoplectic at the abrupt change in policy.

The other issue which could throw New Zealand for a loop is the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Relatively little can be said about it with any certainty, but if it is more transmissible than Delta, it could well circumvent the traffic light protections even if they’re strong enough for Delta.

The policy of tight suppression via lockdowns clearly isn’t sustainable for controlling Covid-19. But it’s far from clear that suppression via traffic lights will be restrictive enough to stop the virus. Hospitals overflowing with cases and people avoidably dying at home aren’t sustainable either. International experience is demonstrating that even those countries with higher vaccination rates than New Zealand, like Belgium or the Netherlands, are returning to lockdowns as a new wave of Covid-19 cases threatens their health systems.

New Zealand is moving into a new phase of the pandemic. Hopefully, that’s a phase where vaccination rates and the traffic lights can allow us to live some semblance of our pre-Covid lives in the long-term.

Nonetheless, it’s also possible that our new phase is just the same one the rest of the world has been in for the past 18 months, with better health outcomes due to widespread vaccination but the ever-present threat of the virus keeping us on our toes indefinitely.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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