Coronavirus: South Island 'frustrated' as regions remain in alert level 2 despite no trace of COVID-19

The South Island could enjoy the freedom that many of its residents have been calling for - if its five District Health Boards (DHBs) can fully vaccinate 90 percent of the eligible population. 

As it stands, almost 68 percent of the South Island is fully vaccinated - and now there's an added incentive to get the jab. 

Following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement on Friday morning, hopes in the South Island to transition from alert level 2 to alert level 1 - the closest setting to pre-pandemic normality - were crushed.

"We were expecting the South Island to go alert level 1," Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult told Newshub.

"We shouldn't be on level anything and the difficulty that we have is that 'one-size-fits-all' is simply not the way to go," Westland District Mayor Bruce Smith agreed.

Leading epidemiologist Michael Baker emphathised with the situation, telling Newshub he understands there would be "real frustration" as South Islanders continue to endure alert level 2 restrictions - without a trace of COVID-19.

"Given that they're staying in alert level 2 with no circulating virus at all, I think there'll be real frustration in the South Island."

However, being included in the outline of New Zealand's next steps - after being excluded from the last three Government announcements - was music to many South Islanders' ears. "We are open to moving the South Island before the rest of the country if all the DHBs in the south hit their targets before others," Ardern announced at the 10am briefing.

Vaccination rates are tracking along well in the south - to date, 72 percent of eligible residents in the Southern DHB have had both doses. Nelson-Marlborugh is also sitting at 72 percent, while South Canterbury tracks along at 69 percent. Canterbury and the West Coast have the most work to do, at 64 and 62 percent respectively.

Before Super Saturday and before the Government's new targets, Christchurch businesses had already launched their own campaign, '90 percent Canterbury', in a bid to boost trailing vaccination rates.

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce CEO Leeann Watson says the region is "well on track", noting it had the highest turnout for last weekend's national Super Saturday vaccination drive.

Meanwhile, nearly 90 percent of Dunedin residents have been vaccinated with their first dose.

"The real job we have over the next three or four weeks is converting our first doses into second doses, both here in the city and across the region," Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins told Newshub.

Over on the West Coast, a competition between the districts continues. 

"I've been waiting to pop the lid off [this bottle of wine] and get rid of the dust," Mayor Smith joked.

But the freedom that comes with hitting 90 percent may not be as sweet as a bottle of fine wine. Moving before the rest of the country is an attractive option for the South Island, but if North Islanders can't easily travel south, many business owners believe they won't be much better off. 

"The Auckland market is 60 percent of of our domestic tourism business," Boult said.

The latest blow was the decision to postpone a major money-maker - the Queenstown marathon - to next year.

For the public, 90 percent is the new target for freedom - but is it achievable?

"Not when you roll it out three months before you expect it to be finished," one local told Newshub.

"I think the South Island probably can," said another.

But if the 90 percent target was meant to double as an incentive for the Mainland, the rush is yet to arrive - with vaccination centres looking lonely on Friday afternoon.