More than 18 months after the start of the pandemic, New Zealand announced its roadmap for a post-containment future – and says removing restrictions depends on the country achieving some of the lowest vaccination rates. most ambitious in the world.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday announced that 90% of eligible New Zealanders must be fully immunized in each District Health Board (DHB) region before the whole country switches to a new ‘traffic light’ system with much looser public health restrictions. The country is experiencing a growing outbreak of the Delta variant and announced 129 new cases on Friday – a record since the start of the pandemic.
“We cannot ask vaccinated people to stay at home forever. So now we need a new playbook to reflect a population protected from Covid, ”Ardern said. She said the new system would provide “a future where we want to continue to protect people’s lives, but also to live our lives.”
When the 90% targets are met, the country will switch to a traffic light system. Even within a “red” framework – the highest restriction levels, designed to protect the health system from high transmission – businesses will be able to remain open and people vaccinated will be able to use services relatively freely. However, those who do not have a vaccination certificate will face serious limitations: they will be limited to take-out, small gatherings of up to 10 people, distance education in universities and will not be able to use “close contact” businesses such as gyms, hairdressers or bars.
“People who are fully vaccinated will be able to reconnect with family and friends, go to bars and restaurants and do the things they love with more certainty and confidence. The framework also gives businesses greater certainty to plan and grow, ”said Ardern.
“If you are still not vaccinated, not only are you more likely to catch Covid-19, but many freedoms that others enjoy will be out of reach. No one wants this to happen, but we need to minimize the threat of the virus, which now spreads mainly among unvaccinated people. “
New Zealand is still a long way from achieving 90% double dose. As of Thursday, 66% of the eligible population (people aged 12 and over) were fully vaccinated with both doses; 83% of the eligible population received at least one dose. Even with high vaccination rates, the country could experience significant levels of mortality and illness from Covid-19 – realities New Zealand has failed to consider so far.
Modeling released by the government and research center Te Pūnaha Matatini last month predicted that with 80% of people aged 5 and over, it could cause just under 60,000 hospitalizations and just under 7,000 deaths. over the course of a year. Even with 90% of the population aged 5 and over fully vaccinated, deaths could rise to around 600 per year without other health measures. Neither model is precisely analogous to the new plan – the government’s targets are for ages 12 and up, not 5 and up, and as part of the traffic light system they could be combined with d ‘other public health measures.
Earlier versions of this framework have been strongly opposed by a number of Maori groups, who fear that declining immunization rates will mean the new system doom Indigenous peoples to higher rates of illness and death.
“If the government is ready to open the borders as soon as our country is 90% vaccinated, it readily views the Maori as the sacrificial lambs. It is a modern form of genocide, ”Maori party leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said earlier this month.
Maori and Pacific communities lag behind in immunization rates, in part because their populations are younger than the general population. Modeling from Te Pūnaha Matatini found that Maori were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than non-Maori, after controlling for age and pre-existing conditions. Pacific residents were three times more likely to end up in hospital with Covid. On top of that, Maori are more likely to have pre-existing conditions, like diabetes and asthma, which put them at greater risk if they contract Covid-19.
The National Iwi Chairs Forum condemned the strategy last week, saying it was “absolutely clear that we are rejecting the Traffic Light Framework”.
“The vaccination rates of Maori and the Pacific must rise to the same level as other New Zealanders, otherwise the rate of infection and death will disproportionately affect our vulnerable communities,” said Lisa Tumahai, President of the Pandemic Response Group .
Ardern said the government believed large cities like Auckland would be able to hit these rates before Christmas. “Even now [vaccination] rate, Auckland would move before, absolutely before Christmas. What we want is for them to move as soon as possible, ”she said. Auckland, which has been on lockdown for several months, will be able to switch to the traffic light system as soon as its DHB reaches 90%, Ardern said. The city is 16,000 doses away from reaching 90% of the first doses.
Ardern’s announcement also marked a final formal farewell to the country’s long-standing Covid elimination strategy. As the country has been moving away from that for weeks, some government officials have continued to say New Zealand is trying to eliminate the virus.
“Delta has made it very difficult to maintain our elimination strategy,” Ardern said. “Its tentacles have reached our communities and made it difficult to shake, even using the best public health measures under the strictest restrictions available to us. But just as our long-standing strategy was called into question, we also had a new tool, which means that Covid has changed, we can change too – and rather than being locked in, we could move forward safely. and with confidence. This tool is the vaccine.