OPINION: New Zealand will move to the Covid-19 Protection Framework from Friday, December 3. The alert levels will be swapped for three traffic light settings. Yet in a recent poll, two in three Kiwis said they didn't understand the new system. Soon after the shift, the Auckland border is set to open from December 15. The Science Media Centre asked experts about what this transition may mean for Aotearoa.
What will the red and orange settings mean for daily life?
Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury: "At the red setting, if you're fully vaccinated and the businesses you visit are using vaccine passes, things will look pretty similar to alert level 2 in terms of capacity limits and requirements like table service at hospitality.
"At orange, things will be a bit closer to alert level 1, though we'll still need to use masks and other precautions. And of course we'll all need to get used to showing our vaccine pass regularly.
"However, for unvaccinated people, life will be closer to level 3 with many non-essential services like bars, gyms and restaurants off limits. This is an important measure to keep everyone safe because unvaccinated people pose a much-higher risk of catching the virus and spreading it to others.
"We're also going to need excellent testing and contact tracing systems to manage community outbreaks under the new traffic light system. This should include regular saliva testing of key workers like teachers and healthcare workers.
"And better use of rapid antigen testing, for example, for close contacts of cases in schools or workplaces. In the UK, rapid antigen tests are widely available for free and this has made a big difference to keeping infectious people out of the community."
What will the lifting of Auckland's border mean for the rest of New Zealand?
Professor Michael Plank: "We're already seeing cases popping up in different regions around the country. Once the Auckland border lifts, it's inevitable this will happen more frequently and in more places. People will need to be either fully vaccinated or have a negative test result to travel outside of Auckland. This will mitigate the risk but neither of these things are guarantees that someone isn't infected.
"Thanks to the vaccine, it's possible a lot of cases will fizzle out before they have a chance to get established in the local community. With schools out and workplaces quiet, total case numbers may remain relatively stable over the summer period. However, communities with low vaccination rates will be vulnerable to rapid outbreaks that could overwhelm health services in remote rural areas.
"Once schools and workplaces go back in the new year, the virus will be able to spread more easily and there is a danger that case numbers could take off with multiple outbreaks across the country."
What will these changes mean for children under 12 who can't be vaccinated?
Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific office, and senior lecturer, pathology & molecular medicine, University of Otago Wellington: "The best way to protect our children who currently don't yet have access to a vaccine approved for them, is for everyone around them to get vaccinated. Of those affected by the current Delta outbreak, a total of 1342 or 18 per cent were children aged 9 years and under, who were infected by the virus and ended up with Covid-19 – this also included babies and a 6-week-old.
"The 12-15-year-old age group was the most recent cohort to be added to the vaccination programme and has had less time to get the vaccine, and if the Pfizer–BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is approved for use in children aged 5-11 years, both these young groups must be supported to get vaccinated. Vaccination is still key."
Professor Michael Plank: "Under-12s - who currently account for around one in five cases - can't be vaccinated and are exempt from the testing requirement to travel out of Auckland. So families with young children have a higher risk of taking the virus with them when they go away on holiday.
"Everyone who is travelling this summer should think about taking some precautions to reduce the risk of catching the virus and spreading it to other parts of the country. This might include not visiting regions or communities with low vaccination rates. And avoiding high-risk environments like busy indoor venues for a few days before and after travelling. This applies especially to families travelling with under-12s this summer."
• Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of Covid-19.