Level 4 lockdowns could be history if New Zealand achieves a COVID-19 vaccination rate of more than 90 percent across demographics, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed.
Ardern unveiled "what the future could look like with a vaccinated population" on Thursday in the wake of new modelling showing how there would be about 500 hospitalisations and 50 deaths per year with more than 90 percent of the population vaccinated.
With a rate of more than 90 percent, Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers say stay-at-home orders, such as alert level 3 and 4, would no longer be required and that only "moderate" public health measures would be needed.
The Government is taking the modelling on board. Ardern said the current alert level system is being worked on by experts to factor in vaccination. The Government wants to see good coverage across geographic areas, age range, and ethnicity.
"You'll be able to see what a difference those vaccines will make to the way that we respond to an outbreak in the future," Ardern told the 1pm press conference.
"What you see today is what the future could look like with a vaccinated population. What this tells us is that with high vaccination rates we don't have to simply accept that we'll have those kinds of impacts on people's lives."
Ardern said lockdowns have been used since the beginning of the pandemic because "none of us could risk being exposed to the virus", but vaccinations "are cause for hope".
"To control it, we couldn't just isolate those who had the virus; we essentially had to isolate everyone. With vaccines, we can turn that model on its head... we can isolate those who have COVID, rather than everyone, because we have the individual armour of a vaccine that means if we do come into contact with the virus, we're far less likely to get seriously unwell, to pass it on, and then to cause a major outbreak."
But Ardern said vaccines alone aren't enough.
"If you just use vaccines and nothing else and there is an outbreak in New Zealand, it could still lead to quite widespread outbreaks and hospitalisations.
"That may not have been the case with other variants of COVID, but unfortunately Delta is more transmissible. If there is an unvaccinated person, it is very good at finding that person eventually, and then the next one and then the next one, until it's quickly found a lot of people and potentially overwhelmed the health system."
"If you're someone who's been vaccinated, you might think that doesn't matter. But it does. Children can't be vaccinated. It will reach them and we've seen it reach them in this outbreak.
"And also, if our health system is overwhelmed, we all suffer."
But that doesn't mean the public health tools currently used to curb the spread of COVID-19 need to be as disruptive, if New Zealand achieves high vaccination rates, Ardern said.
"They could, for instance, be measures as have been referred to as 'sustainable' - a mixture of things like isolating cases, improved ventilation in public spaces, strategic use of masks, vaccine certificates, and an approach at our border that means we try and catch cases but won't necessarily that full 14 days of quarantine as we know it now.
"What we can see is that essentially, with very high levels of vaccine, we can take level 4 out of the tool box and instead set it aside. I know people will see that as very good news."
But it all comes down to those vaccination rates. About 79 percent of the eligible population have so far either had at least one dose of the vaccine or are booked to have a dose.
The modelling shows that even if New Zealand reaches a COVID-19 vaccination rate of 80 percent, there would still be 60,000 hospitalisations and 7000 deaths per year, without restrictions.
Research by the University of Otago found that influenza kills about 500 Kiwis each year. But Ardern said it's not a useful comparison. The seasonal flu has an infection fatality rate of 0.04 percent while COVID-19 is 1 percent.
"I don't think it's useful as a way to think about COVID though, because if you have a workmate that shows up to work with flu, you probably wouldn't react in the way that we want to react if a workmate shows up with COVID.
"That assumes this idea that we're not going to act aggressively with COVID. We always have and we are saying we always will."
The Government already laid out plans last month to open up to the world. A self-isolation pilot will begin before the end of the year for vaccinated arrivals, and next year returnees deemed "low-risk" will won't need to spend two weeks in managed isolation.
Ardern said the Government will continue to "catch cases at the border" but "work towards removing the bottlenecks", after the latest managed isolation voucher release showed more than 22,000 people in the queue for a room.