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The alert level system is on the way out as we move to a new traffic light protocol. Henry Cooke answers all your questions about it.

The Government announced a new traffic light system of restrictions(external link) in October to replace the alert level framework on December 3.

The system will eliminate almost all lockdowns and generally see schools open all the time, allowing far more freedoms than alert level 3.

It has strong differences built-in for those who are vaccinated and those who are not. Vaccinated people will enjoy close to normal life under the traffic light system, while unvaccinated people will not.

Here are the key questions about the new system, answered.

What do each of the traffic lights mean? Is red a lockdown?

The new traffic light system essentially acknowledges the reality of the elimination strategy being over: Some community spread of Covid-19 is allowed under every traffic light.

The focus moves to protecting the healthcare system(external link) and the population who is most at risk – as the new system will only kick in if most people are vaccinated anyway.

Localised lockdowns will still be in the toolkit but not huge national ones.

Instead, restrictions will step up between something like 1.5 and 2.5 across the three lights, with far more restrictions for those who are unvaccinated.

The country could be in multiple lights at once, much as it can be in multiple alert levels at once. But there are no restrictions on inter-regional travel, other than for Auckland.

At all settings scanning in is required, and masks are required on flights for all levels.

At all settings you can visit friends and family, go to school, and travel between regions – if you are not leaving Auckland. (More on that later.)

IMAGE: Robert Kitchin/Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said lockdowns could still be used under the traffic light system but not huge national ones.

Can I travel between regions?

In general, yes. The traffic light system does not restrict travel between regions, even ones at different traffic lights.

There are some caveats.

The big one is that Aucklanders will still face some restrictions. Until December 15 they will still need a reason to leave. From December 15 to January 17 Aucklanders will be able to leave the city but will need either a vaccine pass or a negative test result. This will be checked with spot checks by police near the borders.

Also, the Government is retaining the ability to put areas into small regionalised lockdowns if needed.

The key to freedom: Vaccine certificates

Before detailing each light, let’s talk about vaccine certificates a bit more.

The Government has been working on a digital vaccine pass(external link) for a while now. You can now apply for and download one(external link) if you have had both shots of the vaccine.

Under every light in the new system, far more freedom will be available to those who are vaccinated and businesses that decide to require vaccinations(external link).

You will be able to either print out your vaccine certificate or just keep it on your phone – and then have it scanned by a business or venue with a cellphone.

Vaccine certificates won’t be required everywhere. The Government says they will never be used for essential services like supermarkets or pharmacies. Conversely, large events like concerts will be required to use them(external link). And if a close-contact business like a hairdresser wants to open at “red” – they will need them.

But for most cafes, churches and other venues, their use will be voluntary, with a huge carrot. If you are using them, it will allow you to operate far more freely.

IMAGE: Robert Kitchin/Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveils the new traffic light system.

The red light: Healthcare system at risk

The red light is likely where Auckland will start. This is the setting in place for when there is a fairly large outbreak in the community under way and it risks overwhelming the healthcare system.

This is not a lockdown, however. Visiting family members etcetera will not be banned, although larger gatherings will be curtailed.

Under this setting, schools and early childhood centres will remain open but with some public health measures in place – think masks and cohorting. Tertiary education will also be allowed but with vaccine requirements for in-person learning.

People will be encouraged to work from home but do not need to – a bit like level 3 now.

Retail could remain open with capacity limits and a mask requirement.

If a venue is using vaccine certificates, it could operate at something like level 2. Hospitality and events venues could have 100 people seated, with 1 metre distancing. Gatherings, church services and gyms could operate with a similar limit. Close contact businesses like hairdressers could operate with some limits.

For venues that opt not to use vaccine certificates, things are closer to level 3.

Hospitality could only offer contactless service – so pickups and delivery. Hairdressers and gyms and the like cannot operate. And gatherings for things like weddings or church services will have a limit of 10 people.

IMAGE: Ross Giblin/Stuff

People will need to scan in at every level.

The orange light: More risk of serious community transmission

The orange light is intended for use when there is some community transmission of Covid-19 and it is putting some pressure on the healthcare system – but not enough to overwhelm it.

Like under red or alert level 2, masks are required on public transport and in retail. Retail can be open with capacity limits.

However, for venues that use vaccine certificates, there are no limits. Hospitality venues could have as many people as they want inside, and they don't need to be masked or seated. Gyms could run at full capacity. You can host your huge wedding with no limit.

For venues that choose not to use vaccine certificates, life is tougher. Hospitality remains contactless only – so pickup and delivery. Gatherings like worship services or weddings are limited to 50 people. Gyms and other close-contact businesses cannot open without a vaccine certificate regime.

The green light: Some isolated community transmission

The green light is for when Covid-19 spread is isolated, with hospitalisations at a manageable level.

Under this setting, masks are only required on flights. Retail, workplaces, and schools are all open with no limits or controls. Scanning in is still required.

Like under the orange light, any venue using vaccine certificates can operate freely with no limits.

Any venue not using vaccine certificates still faces some restrictions, similar to level 2.

Hospitality venues can operate but can only allow in 100 guests, who have to be seated and distanced. Gatherings and events can happen but again – only with 100 people. Gyms can operate with up to 100 people.

IMAGE: John Bisset/Stuff

High Vaccine rates are the key to the new system.

When will this new system start?

The Government at first set a target to switch over from the alert level system to the new traffic light system: 90 per cent of the 12+ population(external link) fully vaccinated with both doses.

But as the forecasts for this to happen stretched out until January, the Government backtracked. The system will now be put into place on December 2 at 11.59pm.

The Government will announce on November 29 which regions will start in red and which will start at orange. Auckland will start at red as will areas with particularly low vaccination rates – but we don’t have an exact measure of what that will mean yet.

Vaccination progress by DHB

Percent of people aged 12+ fully vaccinated compared to national progress.

Population totals used to calculate these rates are from the Health Service Users dataset and are an undercount.

CHART: Kate Newton/Ministry of Health, Stats NZ

Vaccination progress by DHB: first doses

Percent of people aged 12+ who have received one dose.

Population totals used to calculate these rates are from the Health Service Users dataset and are an undercount. 

CHART: Kate Newton/Ministry of Health, Stats NZ

What about international travel and MIQ?

The Government has already shortened MIQ stays(external link) for travellers, from 14 to seven days from November 14(external link). But at this point the border system will operate independently of the traffic light system.

What about vaccine mandates for staff?

Every business requiring vaccine passes for entry will have to require their staff are vaccinated.

Some businesses have used health and safety law as it stands and are already requiring them – such as Russell McVeagh and The Warehouse.

But not every company has the legal expertise that these huge businesses do.

READ MORE(external link)

Cooke, H (2021, November). Covid-19 NZ: How the traffic light system will work and when New Zealand will use it. Stuff.co.nz. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/explained/300436587/covid19-nz-how-the-traffic-light-system-will-work-and-when-new-zealand-will-use-it

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