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Fatigued Aucklanders who have endured nearly three months of lockdown can finally see a glimmer of light after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signalled the city's own "freedom day" is November 29.
Yesterday she unofficially announced the date as the day the super city will move away from the current alert level system and into the era of living with Covid-19.
It comes as Aucklanders will tomorrow shift to step two of level 3, allowing retail and some public spaces including libraries to reopen, and outdoor gatherings to increase to 25 people.
In both decisions Ardern cited all three Auckland district health boards (DHBs) cracking 90 per cent first vaccination doses for their eligible populations, and potentially hitting the double dose target in the next three weeks - a counterbalance to still-rising case and hospitalisation numbers.
However, experts warn the move will have inequitable outcomes with the city remaining on a knife edge, and case numbers could further escalate if they don't peak before the new traffic light system.
The announcements came after 190 Covid-19 cases were reported in the community over the previous 24 hours - a daily total second only to the 206 reported on Saturday.
Of those, 182 were in Auckland, seven in Waikato and one in Northland.
Health Minister Andrew Little told TVNZ's Breakfast that officials did consider the rising community cases before making yesterday's decision for Auckland to move to alert level 3 step 2.
But that ultimately, they were comfortable with the decision.
"Every effort" was being made to boost vaccination rates in Northland, he said, where the number of people vaccinated is still behind compared to other parts of the country.
Little said going forward, Covid-19 would continue to spread - but its impact on people's health would be heavily impacted by whether or not they were vaccinated against the virus.
He acknowledged that officials would be keeping a closer eye now on people turning up with Covid to hospital and the number of people being hospitalised after contracting the virus.
Speaking about vulnerable communities - Māori and Pasifika - he said vaccination rates among Pacific Island communities were now strong, but more work was needed to boost Māori vaccination rates.
On cafes and other eateries not being able to open tomorrow - alongside retail stores - Little said the fact people needed to remove their masks while inside a cafe, for example, meant there was a risk of transmission still.
"To enjoy the benefits of a cafe, you have to take your mask off. That's where the risk of aerosol transmission is the highest, so that's why we're being very cautious with those environments you can't put a mask on."
He said places like cafes tended to be very confined spaces - another reason to keep them closed still, at this point.
Little said they expected vaccination rates to look "pretty darn good" by the end of this month.
On double-vaccinated Kiwis overseas trying to get back to New Zealand, Little stressed that there is still a risk that they could bring the virus with them.
"We're not at the point where we think it's safe to abandon MIQ altogether."
Little told The AM Show that the Government had always said it would manage the school return for children and that would be happening within this month.
Junior high school students - Years 9 and 10 - would be going back to prepare for exams and there would be a managed return for others over the next few weeks, he said.
There were a lot of parents who wanted their children to have some contact with teachers and schools before the end of the year so there would be a managed return on that.
Little said the borders between Auckland and Waikato would stay in place as they still tried to minimise movement between the regions because there were still cases "popping up" in the Waikato and there were "still plenty of cases in Auckland" and they wanted to manage those cases.
"They are the same level within each of those regions, but people moving within those regions that's what's going to spread it to other parts of the country and that's what we are trying to minimise."
Concern at schools re-opening
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told TVNZ he was "much more concerned" about any moves to open schools before Christmas.
Officials also need to look at MIQ and freeing up some of those beds and rooms for people in Auckland who have Covid-19.
"We need to free up those beds for people in Auckland who really need to be cared for in a facility rather than left, for example, having to be staying in cars or crowded multi-generational households."
The Auckland boundary and how it was controlled was also vital in keeping the virus contained, he said.
Jabs or negative test needed for domestic flights
Air New Zealand will require all domestic passengers to be fully Covid-19 vaccinated or produce a negative test result from the middle of next month.
Air New Zealand chief Greg Foran says once the vaccine passports are made available, people booking flights will be able to enter their verification details via the Air NZ app.
People's vaccination status or Covid test results would not be checked by staff at the airport. All those details would be checked digitally beforehand.
Foran acknowledged that they had been talks with Government officials, but that the decision to require passengers to be vaccinated or return a negative Covid test was the airline's decision, ultimately.
Parnell restaurant loses $300,000 in revenue
Parnell restaurant Va Bene owner and chef Paul Patterson said they were already struggling as it was and they needed the business now to get them through the winter,
"It's not great," he told The AM Show today.
His business had been ready to offer outdoor dining two months ago and he believed it would be easier to manage than retail. Patterson, who only opened his six months ago, said they were looking at a new space where they could provide outdoor dining or whether they could convert a car park into a dining space.
Va Bene had lost $300,000 in revenue so far and he said many restaurant owners had been forced to re-mortgage their homes or take out extra loans to try and survive.
If the lockdown continued until December or January, then Va Bene would have to close the doors as offering takeaways was not even covering the rent.
Despite the Northland case, Cabinet decided the Far North would move from level 3 to level 2 at 11.59pm on Thursday.
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said he was confident cases there could be managed through testing and contact tracers.
Most new cases (110) were yet to be epidemiologically linked, taking the number still unlinked in the past 14 days to 700.
The seven-day rolling average for community cases was 148 - just above Government-commissioned modelling released last week, which predicted 143 cases at this stage, and which has been guiding recent decision-making.
There were 81 people with the virus in hospital yesterday, up from the previous day's 74.
This was slightly above the modelling, which predicted 78 people in hospital currently, however the seven in ICU were less than the 15 predicted.
Ardern said it was difficult to model exactly how the shift would affect the modelling but projections showed cases would grow.
Hospitalisations were also considered and were currently well within what DHBs could cope with, Ardern said.
Evidence showed the permitted outdoor gatherings did not lead to increases in cases, with only one case linked to an outdoor barbecue.
Significant case numbers hadn't been noticed in workplaces, which explained why retail could be opened, Ardern said.
The decision also acknowledged the impact on businesses and the mental and emotional toll on Aucklanders, Ardern said.
Until the move into the new traffic light framework, there was a chance Auckland could also move to step 3 of alert level 3, which would open up hospitality.
Vaccination certificates would be trialled this week and would be ready by November 29, Ardern said.
Air New Zealand has yesterday announced that vaccine certificates would be needed to fly domestically from December 15.
Looking ahead Ardern said there was "a strong expectation" Auckland would move to the traffic light system by November 29, due to high vaccination levels.
Currently of their eligible populations, Waitematā DHB is at 84 per cent fully vaccinated, Auckland 87 and Counties Manukau 80.
Asked directly if the move would still occur if the DHBs or even one didn't hit the 90 per cent target, Ardern said again it would be a "pragmatic decision" with "strong expectation" to move then.
Nationally, there are only about 30,000 vaccine doses needed to get the remaining 14 DHBs not already at 90 per cent across the line.
Immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said setting that expectation could see vulnerable groups disadvantaged by the vaccine rollout left behind.
Currently 57 per cent of eligible Māori are fully vaccinated nationwide, compared to 78.4 per cent overall. In Auckland the rates are 66, 70 and 58 per cent respectively at Waitematā, Auckland and Counties.
Covid modeller Professor Michael Plank said easing restrictions in Auckland while cases were doubling every 12 days was "a risky move".
"While the vaccine has weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths, it hasn't broken the link altogether. Hospitalisations are already rising and a further increase in cases could put significant pressure on our healthcare system."
Public health expert Dr Collin Tukuitonga acknowledged the toll lockdown was taking on Aucklanders but believed it would have been better to act cautiously.
"I think the outbreak is not under control and we don't have good enough vaccination rates, particularly among Māori who are most at risk, so it's not what I would have done."
Cabinet will make a call on Waikato's alert level next week, when it will also reassess Auckland's current settings. A decision on schools would be announced tomorrow.
Ardern said she make announcements about the Auckland border reopening and who might be able to move through it next week.
She said Medsafe had approved a booster of the Pfizer vaccine for people aged 18 and over, more than six months after their second dose.
She understood the health and border workforce were concerned about whether they would need a booster, so that advice was being developed by the technical advisory group.
National Party leader Judith Collins said Ardern needed to quickly give Aucklanders certainty about how and when they could travel.
National's policy is to get to 85 per cent double vaccination or December 1 and open up.
Act Party leader David Seymour said the Government had effectively adopted his party's own "freedom day" concept.
He said there needed to be more clarity, especially for businesses, about what opening up will look like.
Meanwhile, police warn people planning to join anti-lockdown protests tomorrow, including a march through Wellington to Parliament, that they must stick to the law or face prosecution.