January 17: A significant day in the Government's COVID-19 response looms

January 17 is the day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hinted at a return to normality - it's when the requirement to be either fully vaccinated or have a negative test to leave Auckland ends. 

But that's not the only reason January 17 - this coming Monday - is significant. It marks another milestone in the Government's COVID-19 response: children aged 5 to 11 will be able to get vaccinated

January 17 is also the day police and Defence Force staff in certain roles must have had their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those workers will need to be fully vaccinated by March 1. 

It's also the day New Zealanders travelling from Australia were meant to be able to return without going into managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). But this was delayed until the end of February due to the threat of Omicron

With Auckland cordoned off after the Delta variant emerged in August last year - leading to a months-long lockdown - the Government came under pressure to set Aucklanders free as the festive season approached. 

Under the new COVID Protection Framework, which replaced the alert levels, the Government allowed Aucklanders to travel freely from December 15, but only if they could show proof of vaccination or a negative test result, or else face a $1000 fine, during spot checks. 

It was a risky move given COVID-19 was concentrated in Auckland and letting Aucklanders move freely would allow the virus to spread. But Delta had already emerged in Northland, Waikato and other areas, so it was only a matter of time. 

The Government then decided that, due to high vaccination rates in Auckland, it could move to the less restrictive 'orange' setting on December 31 - just in time for New Year's Eve celebrations (the timing conveniently represented two incubation periods of the virus). There are no gathering limits at orange for venues that check vaccine certificates. 

"Here today we have carefully balanced the range of advice, risks, views and settled on an outcome that means the country moves into the New Year with all but one region in the orange setting," Ardern said on December 13.

January 17 is the day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hinted at a return to normality.
January 17 is the day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hinted at a return to normality. Photo credit: Getty Images

That region was Northland - it remained at 'red', the most restrictive setting, meaning hospitality venues could only open with up to 100 fully vaccinated people while businesses that chose not to check vaccine certificates had to remain contactless. 

Northland was kept at red due to its low vaccination rates. It remains comparatively low at 85 percent, while 95 percent of Auckland's eligible population is fully vaccinated. 

Northland had the only hard border leading up to New Year's Eve. Police worked with former MP Hone Harawira's Te Tai Tokerau Border Control to check that people travelling from Auckland had evidence of vaccination or a negative test result from the past 72 hours.

Only a "very small number" of vehicles were turned away, a police update on December 19 said. The fixed Northland checkpoints ended on December 20 and shifted to 'roving' checkpoints to monitor travellers' vaccination status. 

Despite the free movement over the Christmas and New Year period, COVID-19 case numbers have remained relatively low. The seven day rolling average of community cases is just 26, according to the latest Ministry of Health update. 

Meanwhile, cases at the border are increasing as the Omicron variant rages across the globe. There were 18 new community cases in New Zealand on Friday compared to 31 in managed isolation. According to the Ministry of Health, 266 Omicron cases have been detected at the border since December.

New Zealand has so far been spared from an Omicron outbreak but experts predict it's only a matter of time. While research shows Omicron is less severe because it does not infiltrate the lungs, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says it should not be categorised as "mild".

"Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalising people and it is killing people," said director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Northland Te Tai Tokerau Border Control roadblock.
Northland Te Tai Tokerau Border Control roadblock. Photo credit: Facebook / Hone Harawira

It's all too real for Australia where Omicron is spreading fast. New South Wales reported 29 deaths and 63,018 new cases on Friday, while neighbouring Victoria recorded 18 deaths and 34,836 new cases. 

While there is some evidence of a drop in the effectiveness of current COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla says a third dose provides "quite good protection against deaths, and decent protection against hospitalisations"

A booster dose is up to 75 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infection and 88 percent effective at preventing hospitalisation, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency. But it's unclear how long a booster dose will provide protection. 

Bourla has said a redesigned COVID-19 vaccine that specifically targets the Omicron variant is likely needed and his company could have one ready to launch by March.

Booster shots are available in New Zealand for those who had their second dose four months ago. So far, more than 41,000 booster doses have been administered. 

With children aged 5 to 11 eligible for vaccination from Monday, experts say Kiwis will be more collectively shielded from the impacts of COVID-19. 

"Vaccinating 5 to 11 year olds will be a big step forward for reducing opportunities for COVID-19 transmission and protecting against severe symptoms from breakthrough infections," says Dr Dion O'Neale, a lecturer at Auckland University's physics department. 

"Aotearoa has a relatively young population - 90 percent of the 12 plus population being vaccinated translates into only 75 percent of the total population. Opening up vaccination for 5 to 11 year olds means that around half of the people who were previously ineligible for vaccination will now have access to the protection that vaccination offers."

The Prime Minister has promised not to make vaccination mandatory for children. 

"On kids, there will always be choice, always, you have my absolute commitment on that," she told a protester in November