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What Does The Traffic-light Model Mean? – Expert Q&A

All of Aotearoa will move to the COVID-19 Protection Framework from Friday 3 December.

The alert levels will be swapped for three traffic-light settings, intended to manage COVID-19 in the community. Yet in a recent poll, 2 in 3 Kiwis said they didn’t understand the new system. Soon after the shift, the Auckland border is set to open from 15 December.

The SMC asked experts about what this transition may mean for Aotearoa.

Dr Jalal Mohammed, Senior Lecturer, Department of Public Health, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

What will the lifting of Auckland’s border mean for Pacific communities?

“The ‘traffic light’ system will be met with welcome and caution within Pacific communities. The Christmas period is a time for extended social gatherings within Pacific communities across the country. These gatherings will include multi-generational community members, including those under 12 who are exempt from the testing requirement.

“However, with the Pasifika second dose rate remaining lower than the general population, caution will need to be exercised. The confusing messaging around the ‘traffic light’ is a missed opportunity to engage with Pasifika communities in a time where social gatherings within the community are expected to increase.

“I would like to see more engagement with Pasifika leaders, religious and community organisations to ensure messaging that is easily understood by the community to mitigate some of the risks of virus spread, particularly in regions where Pasifika vaccinations are low.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

What will the red and orange settings mean for daily life?

“At the red setting, if you’re fully vaccinated and the businesses you visit are using vaccine passes, things will look pretty similar to alert level 2 in terms of capacity limits and requirements like table service at hospitality. At orange, things will be a bit closer to alert level 1, though we’ll still need to use masks and other precautions. And of course we’ll all need to get used to showing our vaccine pass regularly. However, for unvaccinated people life will be closer to level 3 with many non-essential services like bars, gyms and restaurants off-limits. This is an important measure to keep everyone safe because unvaccinated people pose a much higher risk of catching the virus and spreading it to others.

“We’re also going to need excellent testing and contact tracing systems to manage community outbreaks under the new traffic light system. This should include regular saliva testing of key workers like teachers and healthcare workers. And better use of rapid antigen testing, for example, for close contacts of cases in schools or workplaces. In the UK, rapid antigen tests are widely available for free and this has made a big difference to keeping infectious people out of the community.”

What will the lifting of Auckland’s border mean for the rest of New Zealand?

“We’re already seeing cases popping up in different regions around the country. Once the Auckland border lifts, it’s inevitable this will happen more frequently and in more places. People will need to be either fully vaccinated or have a negative test result to travel outside of Auckland. This will mitigate the risk but neither of these things are guarantees that someone isn’t infected.

“Thanks to the vaccine, it’s possible a lot of cases will fizzle out before they have a chance to get established in the local community. With schools out and workplaces quiet, total case numbers may remain relatively stable over the summer period. However, communities with low vaccination rates will be vulnerable to rapid outbreaks that could overwhelm health services in remote rural areas. Once schools and workplaces go back in the new year, the virus will be able to spread more easily and there is a danger that case numbers could take off with multiple outbreaks across the country.”

What will these changes mean for children under-12 who can’t currently be vaccinated?

“Under-12s – who currently account for around one in five cases – can’t be vaccinated and are exempt from the testing requirement to travel out of Auckland. So families with young children have a higher risk of taking the virus with them when they go away on holiday.

“Everyone who is travelling this summer should think about taking some precautions to reduce the risk of catching the virus and spreading it to other parts of the country. This might include not visiting regions or communities with low vaccination rates. And avoiding high-risk environments like busy indoor venues for a few days before and after travelling. This applies especially to families travelling with under-12s this summer.”

Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

What changes are soon to happen?

“The Government is set to make sweeping changes to its COVID-19 response which involves replacing the Alert Level System, along with the recently introduced 3-Step Plan approach for easing restrictions while in Alert Level 3. The new COVID-19 Protection Framework – otherwise known as the traffic light system – will replace both existing systems to manage Delta in the community.

“Unlike the Alert Level System with 4 settings, there are 3 settings RED, ORANGE and GREEN with associated details relevant for each of these settings. It is proposed that this new traffic light system will help manage COVID-19 in the community context moving forward in the presence of high vaccination levels across Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Different parts of the country will move into the appropriate and relevant settings of the traffic light system and will depend largely on vaccination levels, with COVID-19 case numbers and other factors considered. As the virus continues to spread across Aotearoa New Zealand, plans are being made for the Auckland border to be lifted.”

What will the red and orange settings mean for daily life?

“The RED setting would apply in a situation where unsustainable levels of hospitalisation are being seen. Record keeping and scanning would be required, with face coverings mandatory on public transport, flights, taxis, retail, public venues and essentially whenever leaving the house. Public facilities could open with up to 100 people with 1m distancing, and retail could open and operate with capacity limits for 1m distancing. People would be encouraged to work from home, with ECEs, schools, and kura allowed to open with public health measures.

“The use of vaccine certificates would allow hospitality and gatherings such as worship or marae could take place with up to 100 people and 1m distancing. Weddings & civil union ceremonies, funerals & tangihanga, events (indoor/outdoor) and gymnasiums, could all operate with up to 100 people and 1m distancing.

“No vaccine certificates under a red setting, would mean more restrictions being applied to these same activities/areas so less people could attend and participate. Hospitality would be contactless, Gatherings such as worship or marae, weddings and civil union ceremonies and funerals and tangihanga could occur but with up to 10 people. Tertiary education could operate but with distance learning only. Events (indoor/outdoor), close contact businesses and gyms would not be permitted to operate without vaccine certificates.

“The ORANGE setting would be applied with increasing community transmission of COVID-19 putting pressure on the Health System. At orange, the Health System could continue to manage Primary Care, Public Health and Hospitals, although increasing risk would be seen for at-risk vulnerable communities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Record keeping and scanning is required under an orange setting, with face coverings mandatory on public transport, flights, taxis, retail, public venues and encouraged elsewhere. Public facilities and Retail could open with capacity limits based on 1m distancing, education facilities could open with public health measures in place, and workplaces accessible, specified outdoor community events can occur, with regional boundary restrictions not applied at the orange setting.

“Vaccination certificates would allow no limits being applied for hospitality, gatherings such as weddings, places of worship or marae, events (indoor/outdoor), close contact businesses and gymnasiums.

“Under orange, no vaccine certificates would mean more restrictions being applied where Hospitality would need to be contactless only and Gatherings (for example weddings, places of worship, marae) could only occur with up to 50 people and 1m distancing. Events (indoor/outdoor), close contact businesses and gyms would not be permitted to operate under an orange setting without vaccine certificates.”

What will the new system and Auckland’s border opening mean for Pacific communities?

“With more people interacting and getting out and about coming into close contact with each other, there’s a risk that this will promote and accelerate spread of the virus – especially for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, and those who remain unvaccinated including our children.

“Even though we are moving into an environment where more people are vaccinated, we still need to be vigilant. Areas remain where there is lower COVID-19 vaccination coverage in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is critical that vaccination levels continue to increase across age groups, geographic locations and all ethnic groups to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19.

“More time was needed for Māori and Pacific vaccination rates to catch up with other groups given the initial vaccination roll-out in Aotearoa New Zealand prioritised other groups to get vaccinated first. Accessibility issues still persist for hard-to-reach communities. High double-dose COVID-19 vaccination levels for Māori and Pacific peoples of at least 90 – 95% will still be needed to help keep our most vulnerable communities safe from COVID-19.

“Leaving anyone behind and unprotected, given the adverse health impact already seen for the most vulnerable in Aotearoa New Zealand, will have wide-reaching consequences. It has been devastating to hear of the recent deaths and passing away of individuals in hospital and while in isolation during this Delta outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand – with sympathies and condolences respectfully extended to all family, whānau and aiga at this time.”

What will these changes mean for children under-12 who can’t currently be vaccinated?

“The best way to protect our children who currently don’t yet have access to a vaccine approved for them, is for everyone around them to get vaccinated. Of those affected by the current Delta outbreak, a total of 1342 or 18% were children aged 9 years and under, who were infected by the virus and ended up with COVID-19 – this also included babies and a 6-week-old.

“The 12-15 year old age group was the most recent cohort to be added to the vaccination programme and has had less time to get the vaccine, and if the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use in children aged 5-11 years, both these young groups must be supported to get vaccinated. Vaccination is still key.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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