New Zealand will shift to the 'traffic light' system on December 3, and from Thursday hairdressers can welcome vaccinated customers as a trial run, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.
"Cabinet has today provided New Zealanders certainty by confirming the whole country will move into the traffic light system on December 3 - 11 days from now," Ardern said on Monday.
"Setting the date now gives people, communities and businesses time to prepare to move safely and smoothly into the new traffic light system."
It comes after Ardern confirmed last week that Auckland's COVID-19 border controls will drop on December 15, meaning Kiwis will have the freedom to roam the country just in time for Christmas and the summer break.
But those freedoms will be determined by vaccine certificates, as per the new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system, to replace the current alert levels.
For example, when Auckland enters the 'red' light, hospitality venues can finally open with up to 100 fully vaccinated people, but businesses that choose not to use vaccine certificates must remain contactless.
Travellers will need to show their vaccination certificate or proof of a negative test result in order to enter or leave Auckland or else face a $1000 fine. Police intend to conduct spot checks. The vaccine certificate or negative test result requirement will be in place until January 17.
Next Monday, on November 29, Ardern will announce at what level of the traffic light system each region will begin. It will largely depend on vaccination levels, except for Auckland due to it being the Delta outbreak epicentre.
The latest Ministry of Health data shows 12 District Health Boards (DHBs) have reached the 90 percent first dose vaccination milestone, meaning they could potentially start at 'orange' while Auckland and areas with low rates could enter 'red'. No region will start at 'green'.
Even at 'green', restrictions remain for those businesses that don't use vaccine certificates. For example, hospitality venues that don't use the passes will only be allowed to welcome up to 100 guests while those that do use them will have no limits.
Data shows 83 percent of eligible Kiwis are fully vaccinated, but 195,786 people or 4.6 percent of the eligible population are more than three weeks since their first shot. If all those who are overdue for their second shot got now, New Zealand would be 88 percent fully vaccinated.
The trial for Auckland hairdressers starting from Thursday will give the Government crucial information on how the vaccine certificates work in practice. It will allow some time to fix glitches before the country shifts to the traffic light system on December 3.
Hospitality businesses are not part of the trial because the Government considered hairdressers to be lower risk, given salons are often small and customers are seated.
Ardern also confirmed that beauty salons are not part of the trial, because the Government wanted to keep it simple in terms of legislating the exemption.
"Hairdressers have been chosen because by default the scale they operate at, with a limited number of customers at any given time, poses the least risk for the next stage of re-opening."
The Government decided not to move Auckland into alert level 3, step 3, which would allow hospitality businesses to open.
"For stage 3, we've said that we consider that to be unlikely," Ardern told The AM Show on Monday morning.
"Cabinet takes a continual review of the settings for any part of the country that are in those higher restrictions. But because we are so close to flipping into the new framework, and because we have had a number of examples of easing, we want to just make sure that those are bedding in, that we're seeing those case numbers continue to be under control.
"That bodes really well for us when we see the big easing that will happen after the 29th."
Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois said she was relieved to have a reopening date, nonetheless.
"This will allow our businesses to start their planning for the short period of time they will be able to open before Aucklanders leave the city over the Christmas break. However, it is difficult to fathom that it is still 11 days away."
Further announcements are expected over the week as the Government prepares to open New Zealand up to a new Delta reality.