COVID-19: Government hoping to introduce vaccine passports by early November - Grant Robertson

Vaccine passports are tentatively set to be introduced in early November in the hopes of kickstarting the stagnating event industry.

A vaccine passport, or vaccine certificate, is a document confirming its bearer has been immunised. The concept has gained traction overseas as it allows vaccinated individuals to prove they are protected against COVID-19, allowing them certain privileges the unvaccinated are not. The health pass, available in a paper or digital format, can be presented upon entry to events or certain venues, or even prior to travel, to certify the person's vaccination status.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed to The AM Show the Government is actively considering vaccine passports to help get the struggling event industry back on its feet after five weeks of lockdown in Auckland. Although the rest of the country is now at alert level 2, there are still tough restrictions in place, with all events currently capped at 100 guests. A physical distancing of 1m must also be maintained between attendees.

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson confirmed the Government is aiming to introduce vaccine passports in early November.

Although it's not yet clear what vaccine passports will look like in New Zealand, Robertson says the Government is aiming for a digital system that would allow people to present their certificate on their phone or other device.

"That's one of the things we're working through with the events industry… I think the requirement issue we'll be talking about as soon as we can, but in terms of the availability of the technology - bear in mind businesses are wanting to use this regardless of the alert level - we're targeting a date around early November for the availability of a vaccine certificate," he told The AM Show. 

"The technology is being worked through at the moment."

Robertson said the Government is also in the process of updating its alert level framework to reflect the significant boost in vaccination. As of Monday, 5,045,901 doses of the vaccine have been administered nationwide, comprising 3.239 million first jabs and 1.806 million second jabs - meaning around 40 percent of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated. 

"The Prime Minister mentioned on Thursday, and I think again yesterday, that we'll be updating our work around the alert level framework on the basis of the fact that we have seen a really terrific response to vaccination," he said. 

"We want to push on [towards] 90 percent plus [vaccination], keep moving, and open up a whole range of options for ourselves in the face of Delta. We're working towards that, I appreciate people want that certainty right now, we're moving as quickly as we can."

As summer approaches, Robertson said the Government still intends to keep alert level 1 as close to "relatively normal life" as possible, with "absolutely no cap" on festivals, gatherings or other events. 

"The goal is to get to level 1. That remains what we always had - what we had last summer with all of those festivals under level 1."

However, he could not provide a definitive answer as to whether the country - or at least, everywhere outside of Auckland - would be moving to alert level 1 anytime soon.

"Obviously with COVID, you want certainty in every single answer, and COVID doesn't work that way particularly the Delta variant but we are working as much as possible towards that," he said.

"I absolutely understand the pressure the events industry and other related industries are under. We have been talking to those industries about the ways in which we want to move to that level 1 goal, the steps we might need to take, what role vaccination might play in getting us to that point, those conversations are ongoing. But the certainty everybody wants is very, very hard to find in a global pandemic that keeps evolving and mutating."

He confirmed the Ministry of Health would again be working with private providers to develop the vaccine passports, but the system would be managed by the agency.

"There's always been private businesses involved but clearly it's managed by the Ministry of Health… They always work with private providers in terms of establishing these kinds of regimes."

But Robertson could not confirm if the introduction of vaccine passports would allow events to be held at 100 percent capacity.

"Those conversations are ongoing at the moment. I'm not going to be able to confirm that for you this morning, but that work is underway as to what the alert level framework will now look like in a vaccinated environment.

"We want to make announcements about this in the coming weeks."

It is unlikely New Zealanders will be legally required to provide a vaccine passport to business owners in order to use their services. Legal advice suggests any enforced use of the passports in a domestic setting could be open to challenge under human rights law. 

Its understood officials could be on uneven ground if they attempted to make the passports mandatory in venues such as restaurants and bars - or at events such as rugby games or concerts.

Concerns have also been raised about how the onus will be put on staffers to enforce any 'no passport, no entry' policy.

'Could go either way'

On Monday night, Professor Michael Plank from the University of Canterbury told Newshub the ongoing outbreak in Auckland "could go either way at this stage" as new case numbers remain relatively steady.

"We have only been at level 3 since Wednesday, so not even one week yet. We haven't really seen the effects of that come through in the case numbers yet. It'll be towards the end of this week," he said. 

Cabinet is set to convene on Monday, October 4 to discuss the current alert level settings and the next steps for the Auckland region, which entered alert level 3 at 11:59pm on Tuesday, September 21 after five weeks of lockdown.

The Government said the region would remain in alert level 3 for a preliminary two-week period, however Professor Plank says Aucklanders shouldn't pin their hopes on a move to alert level 2 next week. He says the number of 'mystery cases' - infections with no immediately evident epidemiological links to the outbreak - is a sign the contact tracing system has "not quite ring-fenced the outbreak completely", although the cases are often linked later on.

"The tail of this outbreak is rumbling along and there is a stubborn amount of transmission between households, not in any large numbers but just enough to keep this tail going," he said.

"It is possible [the numbers] could start to track up at that stage if level 3, with more people being out and about, has allowed the virus more opportunity to spread.

"Next week will be crucial to see if level 3 is still keeping this outbreak under control."