COVID-19: Govt consulting hospitality industry on introducing vaccine passports ahead of Friday COVID-19 plan announcement - Jacinda Ardern

The Government has been consulting with various industries, including the stricken hospitality sector, about how the new COVID-19 framework will work when alert level 3 restrictions are eventually lifted in Auckland, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday.

An announcement is set to be made this Friday regarding the next steps for the Auckland region, which has endured more than two months in lockdown amid the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19. It's understood the Government's new and upcoming framework will be outlined during the announcement, including specific targets and timeframes to give Auckland a clear roadmap out of lockdown restrictions.

It's understood the current alert level 3 measures in Auckland will be lifted when 90 percent of the region's eligible population is fully vaccinated against the virus. As of Monday, 89 percent of Aucklanders aged 12 and over have received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine - 71 percent are fully vaccinated with both doses. 

It's hoped the rate of first doses will hit the 90 percent threshold by the end of this week, with the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, saying on Monday that based on the current data, 90 percent of Auckland's eligible population could be fully vaccinated in about a month's time.

Speaking to The AM Show on Monday, Dr Bloomfield indicated that restrictions could be set to ease significantly in the not-too-distant future if Aucklanders continue to get vaccinated - possibly before Christmas.

"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."

But what Auckland will look like when that all-important milestone is achieved is not yet clear. It's understood the Government is intending to replace the current alert level system with a new framework designed for a highly vaccinated population, which will likely require New Zealanders to present vaccine certificates to enter large-scale events and possibly other businesses, such as hospitality venues.

The proposed system will reportedly be based on three levels of risk, categorised into green, amber and red settings. Speaking at Monday's press conference, Prime Minister Ardern described the new system as a 'COVID Protection Framework' and said consultations regarding the new approach are continuing. 

But speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday, Ardern refused to definitively confirm that restrictions would be eased in Auckland before Christmas. She said achieving 90 percent immunity in Auckland by December was the Government's "hope, based on those current trends", but she did not directly confirm that restrictions will be lifted as soon as that 90 percent target is achieved. 

When asked by host Ryan Bridge if businesses will be reopening in December, Ardern said that's "certainly what we're all working towards".

"The quicker that people get vaccinated, the more people that get vaccinated, the more certainty we have around that," she said. 

"What I'd like to do is, if you'd give me the opportunity on Friday, we are looking to put much more specificity and much more detail around what Aucklanders can expect in the future and what will help us get there. I know that's the thing that's been hardest.

"We've all said we want 90-plus… on Friday we're going to share a bit more thinking in that space. If I can just hold off on getting into more detail until then, because we are finalising details - but we don't want Auckland to live week-by-week. We want them to know what the exact plan is, what will help us get there, what they can do to make it happen."

When Bridge asked why Aucklanders have to wait until Friday for more definitive information, Ardern said the details are still being finalised.

"We've been doing work on this for some time. We have been out consulting with those groups most likely to be affected because it is a significant change - remember this is a framework where we're talking about using things like vaccine certificates," she said.

"We've been out consulting with the likes of hospitality and so on around making it [certificates] workable, where thresholds would sit, how we'd deploy them across the country. This is not just about Auckland, this is basically about how it would work across New Zealand."

Last month, the Government confirmed that vaccine certificates - a document certifying its holder is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 - will be required for people to enter large, high-risk events. By ensuring attendees are all fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it's hoped large-scale events can go ahead with the assurance that they will not become breeding grounds for COVID-19 transmission. 

The Government has also suggested that vaccine certificates may be required to gain entry to other venues, such as hospitality businesses. They will not be made mandatory for essential services, such as healthcare and supermarkets.

However, the hospitality sector was unconvinced by the prospect of vaccine passports being made mandatory for customers, with a survey of Restaurant Association members last month returning a mixed response. Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois said 70 percent of its members had supported vaccine certificates shortly before the latest outbreak - but since then, many members had reconsidered. 

When asked if they would support the introduction of a passport-style document proving a person has been vaccinated - which would be presented upon entry to hospitality venues and events - 26 percent of surveyed members supported the idea, but only at alert level 2 or higher. Twenty-three percent supported the idea at all levels, and 16 percent were unsure.

Members said the biggest challenges would be enforcing the passport if it became mandatory, with the onus being on staff to turn away patrons who disregard the policy.

"With some of the population likely to remain unvaccinated, it means our businesses might be managing very complex situations," Bidois said.

Vaccine certificates are expected to become available next month.