COVID-19: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hints at return to normality from January 17

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has hinted at a return to normality from January 17 - but don't expect changes to the international border over summer. 

Ardern confirmed on Wednesday the Auckland border will drop on December 15, by which time all of New Zealand is expected to be in the new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system, to replace the alert levels. 

Under the new framework, freedoms will be determined by vaccine certificates. For example, when Auckland enters the 'red' light, hospitality venues can open with up to 100 fully vaccinated people but businesses that choose not to use certificates must remain contactless. 

Travellers will need to show their vaccination certificate or proof of a negative test result in order to travel regionally or else face a $1000 fine, during spot checks. 

But it won't be like that forever. Ardern said the vaccine certificate or negative test result requirement will be in place until January 17. After that, Ardern seemed to suggest things will more or less go back to normal. 

"By the end of that summer period when most people have taken a summer break, our vaccination levels will be even higher. We will have used testing and vaccine certificates to really slow down any potential spread of COVID," she told reporters. 

"But we do also need to move into a phase where we don't have hard borders in New Zealand anymore. They were always temporary. 

"By actually pushing that out into January allows us to keep driving up those vaccination levels, get the new system in place, and be the best prepared that we can be."

The new framework was originally pitched as coming into force once 90 percent of the eligible population across each District Health Board (DHB) was vaccinated. That target has now been dropped - but Ardern denies it was an admission of failure. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"No, not at all. In fact, you can already see nationally, 91 percent first doses, and we have high confidence that there will be a number of DHBs who will be in that 90 percent space," she said. 

"However, we need to balance against those high rates of vaccination the need to also use the extra protection that this new framework provides."

Alert level 2, for example, allows vaccinated and unvaccinated people to attend an event at a venue with no gathering restrictions. But under the 'orange' traffic light, this will only apply to events using vaccination certificates. 

Ardern said the 90 percent target "has helped us to focus on lifting rates in individual locations and we will continue to focus on that, and as you'll see, we're not moving New Zealand in a blanket way. 

"We will differentiate those areas that are lower - we'll look to move into 'red'. This is a way that we can acknowledge if an area hasn't reached those high vaccine rates."

What does that mean for the international border?

Don't expect any changes to the international border until after summer. While the time arrivals must spend in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) has been reduced, full home isolation won't be an option until 2022. 

"You'll already see of course that we have materially changed the managed isolation requirements, halving the time that individuals are now in managed isolation, and that is step one of what will be an ongoing change in requirements at our international border," Ardern said. 

"We're moving through all of this in phases. This is a considerable change in the way that we have managed COVID-19 and we're ensuring that we step through these changes deliberately and carefully. 

"What we have said around the international border is that the next phase for us will be removing the thing that has caused the greatest constraint by allowing self-isolation. What we need to do is release, in the near future, the date at which we consider that we'll be able to safely apply. 

"But it will of course affect tens of thousands which is why we need to be cautious."

The trans-Tasman travel bubble was paused in July after COVID-19 rapidly increased in parts of Australia.
The trans-Tasman travel bubble was paused in July after COVID-19 rapidly increased in parts of Australia. Photo credit: Getty Images

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the concern is around international arrivals seeding cases into the community. 

"The changes that we make at the border could significantly increase the number of people travelling across the border, and even if the positivity ratio stays about the same - so even if we're getting 10 cases per 1000 - if we're having 5000 people per day coming into the country, that's another 50 or 60 cases potentially coming into the country, and so we have to make sure we're ready for that.

"Contacts coming across the international border aren't in our contact tracing system whereas the local community cases already are, so we have to deal with cumulative risk. We can't just simply throw the floodgates open. We want to do this in a managed way that means we continue to control COVID in the community."

Hipkins confirmed there are no plans to bring back the trans-Tasman bubble in time for summer. 

"One of the key things we want to achieve when we make any change to the international border is to try and do changes that will stick rather than changes that we might have to change when circumstances change. 

"Doing things at the same time as we do them domestically potentially adds a lot of additional risk to the system all at the same time and so I think people should expect to see things stepped out carefully so that we can keep control of the situation rather than do things all at once which means potentially we don't. 

"Cabinet hasn't made a decision about that but it wouldn't be unreasonable for people to expect that there's not going to be significant change there until early next year."

Ardern said she will provide more clarity on the international border before the end of the year.