COVID-19 vaccine certificates: Rhythm & Vines co-founder calls on festival-goers to get jabbed now if they want to attend

Vaccination will be front-and-centre as the opening act for the festival circuit this summer, and Rhythm and Vines' (R&V) co-founder Hamish Pinkham is hammering the message home - "no vax, no gigs".

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced vaccine certificates will be introduced from November, primarily for high-risk settings such as large-scale events. A vaccine certificate, or 'vaccine passport', is a document attesting its holder has been immunised against COVID-19. Kiwis will either be able to present a digital certificate on their devices or print and carry a physical copy.

The passport certifies its holder has received both jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTEch vaccine, giving a very high degree of protection against severe illness from the virus. At this stage, certificates will most likely be mandatory to enter large events such as concerts or music festivals. The Government is also consulting on their use in hospitality settings. Vaccine certificates will not be required to enter essential services, such as healthcare or supermarkets. 

The Government is currently testing its upcoming site, My COVID Record, which would allow individuals to access their vaccination records digitally. COVID-19 test results are set to become available via the platform later this month, with the downloadable certificates becoming accessible from November.

The introduction of vaccine certificates serves as a clear step forward for New Zealand's stricken event industry, which has been crippled by the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19. It's hoped the passports will provide a layer of protection by ensuring large gatherings of people do not become super-spreader events. 

However, it's not yet guaranteed that New Zealand will be at alert level 1, the setting closest to pre-pandemic life, by summer - a crucial element if R&V is to go ahead.

Pinkham, who co-founded the annual Gisborne-based music festival in 2003, says the introduction of vaccine passports is a welcome step forward - however, it's no use if the country is not at alert level 1. 

"We need to be at level 1 to run our festival, we need people to move freely throughout the venue and enjoy the hillside in Gisborne," Pinkham told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"I think yesterday we had some positive news that's going to lead us towards that step. It's some clarity that we're looking for for the wider industry. 

"We need a line in the sand to tell people, 'get vaxxed, or you're not going to be able to attend'.

"We're in October, summer's knocking. Our team's been taking a bit of time to get plans together, there's certainly lots of moving parts to pull these projects together. But I think having some direction on the vaccine mandate at least gives us some momentum to start putting gears into place and let's get on with trying to get back to level 1."

But the prospect of alert level 1 by New Year's Eve is not looking overly promising for Auckland - which is 50 percent of R&V's market.

Earlier this week, the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, signalled that Auckland - the epicentre of the ongoing outbreak - could face another four to eight weeks of restrictions under alert level 3, which includes a strict regional boundary preventing residents from leaving for non-essential travel. The majority of the country - aside from a snap lockdown in parts of the Waikato - is currently at alert level 2. 

Auckland entered alert level 3 on September 21 and is now enduring its eighth week of lockdown, with the Government introducing a 'roadmap' for the region on Monday. The three-step roadmap outlines a gradual easing of restrictions to provide some respite for embattled Aucklanders, but there is no clear timeline for the second and third phases - and it's not clear when the region will join the rest of the country at alert level 2.

Dr Bloomfield's projection means Aucklanders could remain at alert level 3, albeit with some more freedoms, until late November.

Pinkham admits that without Auckland, the festival will likely not be possible.

"Fifty percent [of our attendees] are from Auckland, so no, we need the country open. We won't be in a position to hold it if the country's fragmented," he told The AM Show. 

"As promoters, we need to get behind the initiative now and try to get back to level 1 where we can all enjoy the freedoms."

Hamish Pinkham.
Hamish Pinkham. Photo credit: Supplied

It's also not yet entirely clear how the Government's vaccine certificate system will work. Health officials indicated on Tuesday that a verification app will accompany My COVID Record in order to authenticate certificates. The app will likely scan a QR code on the document to ensure it's not fraudulent - however, it's not overly clear how staff and organisers will verify the certificate belongs to the right person, with some suggesting whether ID checks also need to be carried out. 

Pinkham says the system needs to be seamless, including further clarification about what to do with unvaccinated attendees. 

"It needs to be seamless and easy… we need a quick answer," he said. "We also need a system for those who won't be able to attend these events as well - we need to honour people that won't be vaccinated. So certainly lots of things to work through as a wider industry, but we're looking forward to getting on and supporting this direction now it's been made."

He confirmed unvaccinated ticket-holders - who are unwilling to get the jab - will be refunded, however he wasn't sure if the "no vax, no gigs" policy would also extend to those who can't be vaccinated due to medical reasons. 

"It's not up to us to set the public health policy, we'll be taking direction from the Government. What we learnt yesterday was no vax, no gigs. So we're now, as an industry, getting behind that," he said.

"The next few weeks will be a really testing time as summer's knocking, whether we can pull it together in time… All the industry needs to get behind this initiative so we can get back to work, get back to live events and save summer."

Pinkham is expecting the mandate to extend to everyone involved in the festival - including artists. With the current managed isolation and quarantine system for new arrivals in New Zealand, he's also not ruling out a return to a local line-up.

"What we took from the news yesterday is that everyone involved with these large gatherings will need to be part of the vaccination mandate - that includes staff, artists, punters and everyone involved with getting on-site.

"We're looking to still host a handful of international acts at the festival... if we have to return to the Kiwi roots, we will."

He is now urging ticket-holders to get their jabs as quickly as possible. 

"If you want to be at R&V, you need to be vaccinated, you need to get the double jab early - start now," he said.

"As long as people can gather safely in Gisborne together now under the mandate, I think it's still going to be a really memorable festival."

Editor's note: This story was updated on October 11 to remove the line 'fully protected against the virus' and clarify that vaccination gives a very high degree of protection against severe illness from the virus.