It could be next summer before the country returns to the green traffic light setting. That’s the warning as the Government tries to manage people’s expectations, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Just how long people are protected by natural immunity after having been infected with Omicron will have a “massive bearing” on how quickly the country can return to the green traffic light setting.

Speaking to Newsroom on Tuesday, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the jury’s still out on how long natural immunity will last for both Omicron and any other new variants in the future.

“We know when people get it, it’s about three months minimum protection from it if you like with Omicron, but it could be longer than that, but because the rest of the world hasn’t gone that long yet we still don’t know,’’ he said.

If natural immunity continues for a “prolonged period’’ Hipkins said he’d expect to see overall cases and hospitalisations “really start to drop down’’.

That would make moving to the green light a very real possibility, but how long it might take is still unknown.

Hipkins told Newsroom it’s still a possibility that green will become the default setting, like Alert Level 1 was under the old framework.

“I’m optimistic about getting down to orange soon.

“Whether we get all the way down to green before the end of winter – I think that would be very optimistic to see that because I think we’ve still got a winter coming where we’re going to be dealing with lots of other things including influenza,’’ Hipkins told Newsroom.

“Green might be something more to think about for next summer, but who knows,’’ he said.

Cabinet reviewed the traffic light settings on Monday and chose not to move any part of the country out of red.

Instead it will review the situation again on April 14 ahead of Easter and school holidays.

While Auckland’s through the peak and cases are coming down the other side, as are other parts of the country like Wellington and Tairāwhiti, there are still many other regions and the entire South Island yet to hit peak cases.

The Prime Minister warned on Monday that while Auckland had made significant progress, “we do still have a relatively high hospitalisation rate’’ – a significant number of which are in Auckland.

The Director-General of Health reiterated that message, stressing that there was a “long tail of people in hospital’’ and Auckland Hospital was a “specialised service for the entire country’’.

That means any loosening of restrictions must take into account what pressure that would put on the health system in other parts of the country, and the flow-on effects it would have to Auckland Hospital.

“Green might be something more to think about for next summer, but who knows.” – Chris Hipkins

While Ardern says Cabinet will review the settings again next week because there’s a chance the situation has changed, Hipkins told Newsroom it’s also possible much of the country will spend winter in the red setting.

“People do acknowledge that normal’s going to look different for a while … we’re not going back to zero, we’re not going back to elimination, and that does mean people’s expectations overall will have to be more realistic for a time,’’ Hipkins said.

If there was then a prolonged stay in the orange setting, it would be nightclubs and those wanting to hold indoor events that would be the worst affected.

The biggest risk to the hospitality sector is that once the country starts to move down into orange there is still just as much chance it will return to red before dropping down to green.

Newsroom understands health officials and ministers are anticipating new variants and new waves during winter months could see the country drop a level, only to bounce back to red before reaching an environment suitable for green.

With most vaccine mandates and vaccine passes now stripped out of the Covid protection framework the remaining barriers at the different settings are capacity limits, separated seating requirements and mask-wearing.

Ministers haven’t taken off the table reinstating tighter restrictions within the framework, if necessary, under new strains or waves.

And while many, including the Opposition, have called for the traffic light system to be scrapped completely or changed, Newsroom understands there’s no consideration being given to creating a new framework now or in the future.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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