COVID-19: Aucklanders shouldn't scrap Christmas plans yet, Govt looking to add 'totally valid' reasons for permitted travel - Jacinda Ardern

Kiwis desperate to reunite with friends and whānau this Christmas should not have their hopes dashed just yet, with it still being "too soon" to rule out the possibility of plans this December, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

As COVID-19 maintains a firm foothold in the Auckland region, many are resigning themselves to the fact that they may not be able to reunite with loved ones or escape for a well-deserved break over the holidays, with no guarantee the stringent restrictions will be eased in time for the Christmas period. 

To help prevent the virus from spreading into neighbouring regions and beyond, the Auckland area - the epicentre of the ongoing outbreak - remains isolated from the rest of the country, with interregional travel largely prohibited and its regional borders guarded by strict checkpoints. People are able to apply for an exemption to travel for work or for permitted personal reasons, however any motorists attempting to cross the boundary for non-essential or unapproved travel will be turned away by police.

However, there now appears to be light at the end of the tunnel, with the Director-General of Health indicating on Monday that restrictions could be set to relax significantly in the not-too-distant future - as long as Auckland reaches the crucial 90 percent vaccination target among its eligible population. 

Currently, 89 percent of Aucklanders aged 12 and over have received their first dose of the vaccine and 71 percent have received two doses, meaning they are fully vaccinated. 

The latter figure needs to rise by about 20 percentage points before the Government will look to scrap lockdowns and ease Auckland out of alert level 3 - however, as Kiwis have been encouraged to reduce the gap between doses to about three weeks, that milestone could potentially be achieved in about a months' time.

On Monday, Dr Ashley Bloomfield seemed positive that based on the current data, the region could crack the golden 90 percent target ahead of Christmas - even by early December.

"It's great news for businesses and it's great news for Aucklanders, because we all want to be able to enjoy those freedoms we like to enjoy for summer and for Christmas… It's great progress and I'm going to be excited later in the week - let's hope sooner rather than later when Auckland does hit that 90 percent first dose vaccination figure," he told The AM Show. 

When asked by The AM Show host Ryan Bridge on Tuesday if Aucklanders should forget booking the bach or AirBnB for the holiday period, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern further fuelled hopes for a classic Christmas by saying that "wouldn't necessarily be [her] advice" - and it's still "too soon" to rule out reuniting families for the festive season.

She says the Government is working on possibly broadening the list of reasons for approved travel to include other "totally valid" scenarios.

"At the moment we've got some people who are able to move, and they're doing that on the basis of having that special accreditation to move because it's for essential [purposes]... but what we want to recognise is there's a whole bunch of other reasons that are totally valid, particularly as we come up to Christmas - families wanting to be reunited," she told The AM Show.

"So it's how do we balance that need, with the desire of the rest of the country to be safe from COVID during an outbreak. We're doing some work on that at the moment to see if we can balance those two really important needs and interests.

"So no, it would be too soon for me to say at this point, to rule that out, because we're working hard on that."

Ardern acknowledged that vaccine certificates would likely play an important role if permitted movement was broadened, to ensure those travelling throughout the country are double-jabbed.   

"Those are the kind of options we're looking into, but of course keep in mind, it is possible - while it reduces the chances - it's possible to be vaccinated and have COVID-19, so [vaccine certificates] alone wouldn't necessarily be sufficient," Ardern said.

"So we are doing some thinking in this space and thinking also about how to make it work in a way that wouldn't cause massive congestion at your borders as well. It's not an easy solution but we are thinking hard about how we can make it work… we know that for many people the target for them will be around Christmas time, so we want to try and give some certainty as quickly as we can."

Ardern says there will be an announcement on Friday which will outline the next stage of the Government's response and provide greater certainty for Aucklanders.

Sixty cases were recorded on Monday, 57 in Auckland and three in Waikato. Currently Northland, Auckland and swathes of Waikato remain under alert level 3 restrictions, however Northland is set to shift to alert level 2 at 11:59pm on Tuesday.