Coronavirus: How new COVID-19 'traffic light' framework could see regions holding each other back from freedoms

The alert levels for COVID-19 are on their way out and will be replaced by a new 'traffic light' system

It's a carrot and stick approach - the more people get vaccinated, the more freedoms New Zealanders will get. 

The lights turn on once each District Health Board (DHB) achieves 90 percent double-dose vaccination for their eligible population. Auckland needs all three DHBs to reach the target. 

As of Friday morning, the DHBs closest to that were Auckland, Waitemata, Capital and Coast, Southern, and Nelson Marlborough. 

But the DHBs that have a long way to go are Lakes, Tairawhiti and Taranaki. Northland and Bay of Plenty are slightly ahead. 

For many Aucklanders, lockdown has lingered for far too long, with picnics the only perk. 

"We're all a bit over it now aren't we?" one local told Newshub on Friday. "I'd love it to go normal by Christmas, definitely."

Another said: "It's all we've got at the moment really, something to look forward to."

Auckland is now nearing the end of this track - but how fast it goes is up to everyone. 

"COVID is a marathon for all of us but right now we're in a sprint," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday as she announced the new framework. 

The sprint to vaccinate is dragging on, but Ardern acknowledged: "We cannot ask vaccinated people to stay home forever."

When all three of Auckland's DHBs are 90 percent double-dosed, the city will move to the new traffic light system. The first stop will be Red. 

"It will feel like a huge amount of freedom relative to what Auckland has now," Ardern said. 

At Red, schools and retail will open, but working from home will still be encouraged. Cafes, events and gyms can all go ahead with a 100-person limit but only for the vaccinated. If not, there's alert level 3-like restrictions - 10 person gatherings, contactless cafes, and no gyms. 

"Anyone who is not vaccinated right now, unless you choose to be, you will not be able to enjoy the freedoms of other New Zealanders," Ardern said. 

That's at the lower levels too. At Orange, shops and schools will open with public health measures. Bars, restaurants and gatherings will have no restrictions with proof of vaccination. If not, cafes will stay contactless and hairdressers and the like will still be closed, and there's a 50-person restriction for gatherings.

"If you want to be able to go to a bar, a restaurant, a cafe, a gym, a place you can have your hair cut, a sporting event, a festival, a gathering - get vaccinated," Ardern said. 

At Green, schools, workplaces, shops and public facilities are all open. Bars and restaurants, gatherings, or hairdressers stay the same, with vaccination required. There will be a 100-person limit and 1m distancing for those who aren't vaccinated. 

"I think it gives everyone a bit of a nudge, yeah, otherwise they're going to be staying at home," a local told Newshub.  

"It's a good incentive to go and get it done. It sounds like there'll be a lot of restrictions for those people who choose not to," another said. 

The rest of the country's road to the traffic light is somewhat of a convoy. We all need to wait for each other.

Each DHB needs to hit 90 percent vaccination before anyone gets to move, with the possible exception of the South Island if they hit 90 percent first. They might jump systems early. 

"We just seem to have a lot of different approaches all operating in parallel," says Otago University Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist. "I think that's a problem."

The team approach means places like Wellington with high vaccination rates could be held back by places like Taranaki where it's much lower.

"Soon, you won't be able to do many things that you love without being vaccinated and I expect that will accelerate vaccinations," Ardern said. 

So if Kiwis want everyone to have a good summer - get the shot.

The traffic light system is something that will become second nature like our tried-and-trusted alert levels - once we get our heads around it. 

It's the road that leads us to the 'traffic light' that is a complex route - especially if we end up with different areas in different systems. Auckland at Red, the South Island at Orange, and everywhere else in alert levels could spell chaos.

It also throws up a huge question mark around reuniting families for Christmas.

Fully vaccinated people may be able to travel between systems, but throwing vaccination checkpoints on already packed summer holiday roads will be the ultimate experiment in travellers' patience.

This confusing journey will hopefully be worth it - when everyone hits that 90 percent mark, it should be goodbye and good riddance to lockdowns.