Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has quelled talk of some Auckland businesses using COVID-19 vaccine certificates earlier than others, which would allow them to operate after months of lockdown.
Retail stores in Auckland have been able to open for a couple of weeks now since the city moved into alert level 3, step 2. But hospitality and other close-contact customer-facing businesses must remain closed.
Speculation has been brewing that hairdressers, beauty therapists and some other businesses in Auckland could move into the new COVID Protection Framework early and start operating using vaccine certificates as a test-run.
"I've seen some of the commentary over the last 24 hours. There's been no decisions by Cabinet on any further easing of restrictions at this stage," Ardern told reporters in Christchurch on Friday.
"As we've consistently said though, what we would really encourage businesses in Auckland and across New Zealand to do, is to prepare for the new COVID Protection Framework.
"On 29 November, Cabinet will be making decisions at which level each part of the country will move into and then the country will move very soon after."
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.
Freedoms will then 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. The vaccine certificate or negative test result requirement will be in place until January 17.
Ardern has already confirmed that no region will start at 'green', which is a lot like alert level 1. 'Orange' or 'reduce' will see venues have capacity limits and restrictions for non-vaccinated people. 'Red' or 'restrict' will be similar to alert level 3, but with more freedoms for the vaccinated.
"What we have indicated is that those areas that have good vaccination levels can expect to move into the new system at 'orange' and those with lower vaccination levels, we will need to use the greater protection that comes with 'red'," Ardern said on Friday.
"We are indicating to give some level of planning around what we expect but again, it's not that far until we see those final decisions, and then everyone moves into the framework."
When asked what level of vaccination a region will need to avoid going into 'red', Ardern said: "We've said all along that the goal that we're reaching towards has been in the order of 90 percent double vaccination but we'll also make pragmatic decisions around that too."
Ardern denied the new system is difficult to understand.
"It's very simple. It's quite similar to the way we've used the alert level system so if people have to transition it's quite straightforward except with the use of vaccine passes.
"What has also changed though is certainty. Under every level, business is open, and that's a big change from what we've had in the past."
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.
Ardern said it's because the traffic light system provides more safety than the alert levels, and with cases now confirmed in several regions beyond Auckland, the traffic light framework makes more sense.
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 she understands there will be anxiety in the South Island.
"By the time we make changes at the Auckland boundary Auckland will have been in a form of bubble for the better part of four months," she said.
"We know changes need to be made but we've looked to do that safely. There will be a requirement on Aucklanders who are travelling to be either vaccinated or tested and for the South Island they'll actually have checks of everyone travelling via flights and the Interislander so that gives an added level of reassurance for the south.
"One thing I will say though is that throughout this outbreak we've seen that despite having protections in place we have seen the movement of some cases. So yes, we can slow it, but we also need to be prepared. That's what our new COVID Protection Framework helps with."