Covid 19 Delta outbreak: What does Freedom Day in three weeks mean for Aucklanders, and should we be there already?

ANALYSIS

Today is the day of open shopping malls and libraries for Aucklanders, but the day of open bars, restaurants, gyms and churches isn’t too far away.

And with far fewer restrictions, if you’re vaccinated.

Freedom Day for Auckland has been unofficially announced, perhaps from December 1 following Cabinet’s review on November 29 of how DHBs are tracking towards their 90 per cent targets.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said each of Auckland’s three DHBs have to hit 90 per cent before the traffic light system comes into effect, but she all but promised a Freedom Day in saying that Cabinet will be “pragmatic”.

Auckland would then move to Red in the new setting, but what will that look like for Aucklanders who, by then, would have endured 15 weeks in level 4 or 3 lockdown?

And if the Red setting is actually safer than level 3.2, then shouldn’t Auckland be moved into the new framework now?

Similarities: 3.2 v Red

The queues outside Sylvia Park yesterday for today’s grand 3.2 opening in Auckland reveal new liberties: the malls will be thriving once again as retail reopens in time for the Christmas rush.

Similarly, public facilities including museums and libraries can open regardless of people’s vaccination status, but face masks must be worn, while numbers are unlimited as long as physical distancing can take place.

Gatherings at funerals and weddings are allowed for up to 25 people, rather than 10, and outdoor gatherings can also expand to 25, while dropping the two household shackles of level 3.1.

Today the Government is expected to confirm how Years 1 to 8 students can return to school, while Years 11, 12 and 13 students are already back at school.

Under Red, all schools can open with public health measures.

The Red and 3.2 rules also mirror each other for retail and public facilities, as well as open ECEs.

Outdoor community events are allowed under Red – with unspecified “capacity limits”.

Key differences

Vaccine certificates showing a person is fully vaccinated is the distinctive feature of the traffic light system.

Higher risk businesses or organisations can choose to demand certificates, meaning their staff and customers must all be fully vaccinated, and most of them will do so, given how hard it would otherwise be to stay viable.

Under Red, such a requirement would allow them to host up to 100 people at a time, with a one metre distancing requirement.

For the vaccinated, that means Freedom Day opens up indoor and outdoor events, weddings and funerals, church services, gyms and hairdressers, bars and clubs and restaurants.

Without certificates, weddings, funerals and church services can only host up to 10 people, and hospitality can only operate in a contactless way. Indoor and outdoor events would be banned, and gyms and hairdressers would have to shut shop.

Tertiary education classes can start again with certificates, but are online only without them, as they are in level 3.2.

Businesses such as retail can also undertake a risk assessment which – if there is a lot of customer contact, for example – would give them a legal leg to stand on if they required their staff to be fully vaccinated.

Risk levels: 3.1 v 3.2 v Red

Ardern’s balancing act here is to ease lockdown fatigue in a way that doesn’t ramp up the public health risk.

According to Ministry of Health data, there are still 231,000 eligible Aucklanders who are less than fully vaccinated, 112,000 of whom aren’t vaccinated at all.

And every time restrictions are eased, it’s young Māori who are on the Delta frontline. Among Māori in Auckland, about 49,000 eligible people are less than fully vaccinated, and 26,000 are unvaccinated.

Then there are the 300,000 Auckland children too young to be vaccinated.

This is why some health experts, including National Māori Pandemic group co-leader Dr Rawiri Jansen, are nervous or even terrified at the further easing of restrictions as case numbers continue to trend towards record highs.

Ardern has said the higher vaccination coverage means that the increased risk from open malls and shops is manageable, and hospitals will be able to cope.

But Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank is worried that daily cases might now peak at 500 a day, rather than the 200 to 300 a day that was estimated when level 3.1 restrictions in Auckland were assumed.

A key question, then, is whether the Red setting might actually be less risky than level 3.2.

Last week Counties-Manukau DHB director of population health Dr Gary Jackson lamented how the certificates weren’t ready yet because it appeared there were more ways for vaccinated and unvaccinated people to be in each others’ space under level 3.2 settings.

Whether this is the case is unclear, given that the unvaccinated are still allowed into retail shops and public facilities under both settings.

Another reason to move to Red now, as highlighted by epidemiologist Tony Blakely, was because many Aucklanders were probably hitting peak immunity at the moment.

Blakely was basing that on the number of Aucklanders who have been vaccinated since the start of the outbreak. Studies have pointed to waning immunity against symptomatic infection over time, though two doses of the vaccine is still considered to have strong efficacy against severe health impacts.

Red's red flag – household gatherings

Under Red, vaccine coverage is considered high enough to dispense with household bubbles.

That means Aucklanders will be free to move around the city and visit other people’s homes, regardless of their vaccination status.

This is a greater danger than any of new freedoms at level 3.2. Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield have both said that the most common way the virus has spread in this outbreak is via indoor gatherings.

Restricting such gatherings for the unvaccinated is a key safety feature of the traffic light system, and while unclear on the Government’s Covid-19 website, these would also apply to private gatherings.

Whether it would be enforceable to keep a private gathering to 10 people if any of the guests or hosts are unvaccinated is another matter.

This is why there is a decent case to step into Red by first moving to 3.2.

When Freedom Day eventually comes and the inevitable end-of-lockdown house parties lead to the potential for super spreader events, Ardern will still have two tricks up her sleeve: localised lockdowns and surge vaccinations.

“We can go in there and really try to drive up those [vaccination] rates to support the community or, if we need to, we can also shut it down,” Ardern told the Herald recently.

This would help to lift vaccination coverage in places where it’s low, but public health officials would start on the back foot, chasing all the branches of new transmission after such an event has taken place.

What about level 3.3?

Ardern said she was still looking at level 3.3 as a possibility if public health advice deemed it was safe enough to move there between now and the end of the month.

This would allow hospitality and indoor facilities like movie theatres and casinos to open for up to 50 people. Gatherings would also be able to have 50 people, and hairdressers could reopen.

It’s hard to see this happening, however, because it could more easily lead to an explosion in cases as it would allow dozens of people – regardless of vaccination status – in an indoor setting without masks.

It’s more likely that Aucklanders will move from level 3.2 to the Red setting by December 1.

Ardern said on Monday that doing so, even if any of Auckland’s three DHBs are short of 90 per cent, might nudge more of the unvaccinated wanting to hit the pub, club or gym to get a jab.


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