COVID-19: Hipkins urges Auckland's hospitality businesses to hang on for 'traffic light' system despite pleas for respite

Stricken hospitality businesses in Auckland are staring down the barrel of permanent closure with no certainty as to when they can reopen their doors - despite retailers being allowed to return to the shop floor next Wednesday.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is now urging business owners to hang on for just a little bit longer, saying the Government's new framework is not far off and the end is in sight. 

On Monday, Cabinet announced that Auckland will likely move next week to step two of the Government's 'roadmap', a three-step system designed to guide the region out of alert level 3 by gradually easing restrictions. Under step two, retailers are allowed to resume trading, public facilities such as libraries and museums are permitted to reopen, and Aucklanders can socialise with up to two dozen friends in their backyard - but hospitality venues serving customers outdoors is still forbidden.

Following the announcement, there were complaints that if up to 25 people from 25 different households could socialise in a backyard for a barbecue, there was no clear reason why hospitality venues could not host up to 25 customers in a socially distanced, outdoor setting. Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday, restaurateur and the president of the Auckland branch of the Restaurant Association, Krishna Botica, said businesses should be allowed to seat customers outdoors under step two as the risk of transmission is scientifically proven to be much lower.

Addressing the complaints on Wednesday, Hipkins told The AM Show that Cabinet will continue to look at its options - but hospitality businesses should take comfort that the new COVID-19 Protection Framework, the Government's alternative to the alert level system, isn't far off. 

"We'll keep looking at our options to have more freedom in Auckland. That gets closer to step three - frankly we're getting very close to the traffic light system now, we could hit that target within the next few weeks," he said.

"We don't want to yo-yo around and reimpose restrictions as they have in other countries that have eased their restrictions too soon. We want to march forward and continue to make progress and continue to open up, not be lurching back and forth."

The new COVID-19 Protection Framework - a three-step 'traffic light' system based on different levels of risk - will be introduced in Auckland when each of the region's three district health boards (DHBs) reach 90 percent vaccination. Once 90 percent of the three DHBs' eligible populations are fully vaccinated, Auckland can enter the first stage of the new framework, 'Red' - leaving the alert level framework, and lockdowns, behind.

In the Red setting, hospitality businesses can serve up to 100 seated customers, with a 1m distance between them. Customers must present a vaccine certificate upon entry to certify they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. If a business opts not to use vaccine certificates, the venue must continue with contactless trading only, as currently permitted under alert level 3. 

Hipkins says the 90 percent target is in sight for Auckland - as of Tuesday, 81 percent of eligible people under Auckland's metro DHBs are fully vaccinated.

"We acknowledge Aucklanders have done the hard yards. They're going to be heading into the traffic light system I would think - opening up more internally, within Auckland - by the end of this month," he said. "The faster we get to that 90 percent fully vaccinated target, the faster that can happen.

"When we do get to that traffic light system and that Red setting in Auckland, we won't be going back."

If it does take longer than expected for Auckland's DHBs to reach the target, hospitality could still resume trading under step three of the Government's roadmap. If that is introduced prior to the traffic light framework, venues will be able to serve a maximum of 50 customers, who are seated and separated.

But Botica told The AM Show on Tuesday that restaurants should be allowed to serve customers indoors as soon as the vaccine certificates are available, instead of waiting for a vaccination target to trigger the new traffic light framework. In the meantime, she said, businesses should be able to host customers outdoors.

The Government has said the certificates should be ready to download or print by the end of November.

Chris Hipkins
Chris Hipkins Photo credit: Getty Images

Meanwhile, Hipkins also addressed the possibility of Aucklanders being able to travel for Christmas. Residents currently remain confined to the region unless their travel is approved as essential, with police-manned checkpoints stationed along the northern and southern borders.

When asked when Aucklanders will be able to move freely across the regional boundary, Hipkins remained vague.

"We don't necessarily know how the next few weeks are going to unfold. We're planning for a whole variety of different scenarios there and we'll share further information on that over the next few weeks."

But if Aucklanders are hoping to visit loved ones for Christmas, they need to get vaccinated - and now, he said.

"COVD-19 is going to make its way around the rest of the country, it's a question of when, not a question of 'if this happens'," he said.

"COVID-19 will find the unvaccinated, so get vaccinated. If you don't want to have restrictions in place at Christmas, if you want to be able to enjoy the good Kiwi summer, get vaccinated. 

"Now is the time. It's never been more urgent."