Signs point to 'orange' for Auckland but one word Jacinda Ardern keeps using could mean no summer festivals

Signs point to Auckland shifting to the less restrictive 'orange' traffic light level but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern keeps using the word "cautious" when asked how likely it is. 

Aucklanders got their first taste of freedom on December 3 after New Zealand moved into the new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system, where freedoms are determined by vaccination status and gathering limits. 

At the most restrictive 'red' level, gatherings for the vaccinated are restricted to 100. It means Auckland, along with more than 10 other districts with a mix of COVID-19 cases and low vaccination levels, cannot have any large events. 

But since 92 percent of eligible Aucklanders are fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases are leveling off, and hospitals are coping, the Government is being urged to let Aucklanders enjoy a less restrictive summer after months of lockdown. 

"The Government's traffic light system says a region will be in red when the health system faces an 'unsustainable number of hospitalisations'. It's clear the health system isn't being overwhelmed right now," says ACT leader David Seymour. 

"Moving to orange would remove the venue size limits that are killing so much activity in Auckland and other regions in red. Hospitality, events, even weddings and funerals are being severely limited by orange."

Ardern, speaking to Morning Report on Monday ahead of her 4pm post-Cabinet announcement, said New Zealand was still transitioning into the traffic light system.    

"The Opposition has continually put pressure on us to go faster; to lift restrictions sooner, to open borders earlier, and I think if we'd listened to them we may be in a different position as a country."

And speaking to Breakfast, Ardern used a word she's cited several times before when asked about Auckland's traffic light settings: "cautious". 

"We can see the impact of vaccines. But it's just about making sure we're cautious so we don't see a runaway of cases which will see us back in red."

Ardern used the same word a week ago when asked if she could rule out a shift for Auckland. 

"I do place a lot of weight on the public health advice, and, of course, we will be cautious, as we have been to date. I will wait, though, with an open mind on the advice that we receive."

Ardern even used the word the day she announced the traffic light settings. 

"We've prepared well for this moment by maintaining a cautious approach focused on protecting people and their jobs. Our next phase is focused on minimising the impact of COVID-19 and protecting people."

Auckland 'a sacrificial lamb'

Businesses have been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions. The number of business closures has outnumbered the creation of new firms for the first time in nearly a decade

"We must see a shift to at least orange," says Viv Beck, chief executive of Auckland business association Heart of the City. 

"This would give event organisers certainty, get the hospitality sector operating at full capacity and give more confidence to attract visitors. 

"There must also be financial support for impacted businesses right through to green and low cost, easy to repay money. Auckland has been somewhat of a sacrificial lamb through COVID and our businesses must be supported."

There is financial support available. 

Businesses with evidence of a 30 percent revenue drop between October 3 and November 9 compared to before August 17, are eligible for the one-off Transition Payment - $4000 per firm plus $400 per full-time employee up to a cap of 50. 

The Resurgence Support Payment (RSP) also remains open for applications until January 13. The amount paid out was doubled and made weekly. Businesses with evidence of a 30 percent revenue drop get a $3000 base payment plus $800 per full-time employee up to a cap of 50. 

The Leave Support Scheme and the Short Term Absence Payment will remain available under all levels of the traffic light system.

The RSP has so far paid out $2.2 billion while the Transition Payment is expected to cost between $350-$490 million. With the wage subsidy scheme included, the Government has spent $6.9 billion supporting businesses since the Delta outbreak. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has signalled a move away from the broad based economic supports provided under the previous alert level system.

"This is because at all levels of the new framework, most businesses will be able to operate at almost full capacity," he said last week. 

"We will monitor any economic impacts the new system may be having on businesses. I expect to report back to Cabinet in early 2022 on this and will make recommendations for support as necessary."

But Beck fears it will leave a "significant hole, especially with the uncertainty around Omicron" - particularly now that Ardern has said it's "inevitable" the COVID-19 variant will find its way to New Zealand

"Many Auckland businesses have been doing it especially tough for the past three and a half months, as the price of keeping a lid on Delta for everyone's benefit. Moving to the traffic light system only gives them a small trading window to claw back losses before the summer holiday slowdown."

Otago University Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, has a warning about easing restrictions in Auckland

"It still has a large number of cases and around 700 people isolating at home at the moment. There are a lot of sources of infection there and we know coming up to Wednesday when the border reopens, it means more movement out of Auckland. It does give the potential to see the virus widely around the country."