Jacinda Ardern says she won't be opening up parts of New Zealand with low vaccination rates just so she can have the Christmas holiday she wants.
But Kiwis can help speed up the end of any land borders that might be in place over the festive season by getting vaccinated, she told Newshub Nation in an interview broadcast on Saturday.
There's been confusion this week - a growing theme of the COVID-19 response it seems, as we transition from elimination to suppression - over whether Aucklanders will be able to travel for Christmas. COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins threw a spanner in the works when he suggested requiring Aucklanders to apply for allocated time slots for travel, so there weren't queues at the border while people's vaccination documents were checked.
Other ministers played down the suggestion as merely one of many Cabinet was considering, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson saying it "wouldn't be very practical".
"Here's the simple issue that we have," Ardern told Newshub Nation host Tova O'Brien. "We are all totally committed to ensuring - and this is a bottom line for us - Aucklanders need to be able to move around for summer and for Christmas. So then the question becomes, how do you do that in the safest way possible?"
She said the obvious options - vaccine certificates and testing - all require a hard border.
"We've tended to use [borders] for short periods of time and for small numbers of people. We've got to find something workable. Here's the challenge though - 30,000 to 40,000 people needing to move all at once.
"So we've just got to figure out a way to make sure that people aren't stuck in queues for long periods of time. No decisions have been taken, no decisions. But that's the dilemma… We want to make it as smooth as we can. But one thing I will say to Aucklanders is we are not going to keep you trapped over Christmas. We can't, we won't, it's not right, but we have to find a way that we can continue to keep people safe."
ACT leader David Seymour said Ardern needs to rule out the "bonkers" idea of time slots.
"It's not often ACT agrees with Grant Robertson, but Jacinda should take his side," he said after the interview with Ardern aired.
"It's November. Kiwis want to book their well-deserved holiday before it becomes unaffordable but once again the Government hasn’t planned ahead and is making it up as it goes along. After 80 days of lockdown, Aucklanders need to see some light at the end of the tunnel. That light isn't waiting in a queue for hours on end to show their papers."
Seymour suggested the Government should declare December 1 'Freedom Day', because by then "everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated".
The UK declared a 'Freedom Day' earlier this year, but it had to be pushed back several weeks after daily case numbers started rising dramatically. Since loosening restrictions, the UK has had a new surge in infections, with about 200 dying every day from COVID-19 in recent months.
What to do with the unvaccinated
Ardern said the Government is still getting legal advice on whether the unvaccinated can be legally stopped from travelling. They're far more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and pass it on, and outside of Auckland there is very little COVID-19 at present.
While anti-vaccination activists have accused the Government of acting dictatorial, Ardern says any restrictions on them will only be temporary.
"That hard border is not going to remain there forever. It is doing a job now while we have a highly vaccinated Auckland and an outbreak, but the rest of the country is still vaccinating, and so that's the role it's providing. It will not be there forever."
Requiring vaccine certificates for travel and events will also be only temporary, she said, until "we have high vaccination rates across the rest of the country".
"The COVID protection framework, what people are calling the 'traffic light', it is not designed to have hard borders dividing up New Zealand, and that's because it's based on the idea of having good high rates of vaccination across the country."
So far 89 percent of those eligible (aged 12-plus) have had their first jab, and 77 percent their second. This places us 27th in the world for first doses and 34th for second, when total populations are considered.
But the rollout hasn't been even across the country. Ardern said if it was, it would be a much simpler decision to scrap the border separating Auckland - which has some of the best coverage in the nation - from the rest of the country.
O'Brien asked Ardern if she was still planning to hit the East Cape for Christmas, her partner Clarke Gayford hailing from Gisborne, where they plan to get married. The Tairawhiti DHB, which covers the region, has the lowest vaccination rates in the country - just 80 percent of those eligible have had their first dose and 65 percent their second.
"To be honest, I haven't changed any of my plans, but nor have I made many at the moment," said Ardern. "That's simply for the fact that I've been focused on the work we're doing here.
"But as I've said, my commitment to Aucklanders is that they will have a summer break. My commitment is to New Zealand and this is what we're working very hard on. Everyone needs a reprieve right now. People are COVID exhausted. I want that reprieve, that break to happen over summer…
"One thing I'll say is, the COVID response is not based on my holiday plans."
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