Week in Politics: Changes are on the way - for all of us

5:21 pm on 19 November 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis: The country is on the brink of moving to the new traffic light system, Auckland's border opening date is set and vaccine certificates are launched. A new poll shows Labour falling but there's bad news for Judith Collins, who offers a strange reason for her unpopularity.

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins

Photo: RNZ

At her post-cabinet press conference on Monday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talked about moving early into the new traffic light Covid-19 protection system, and on Wednesday she confirmed it.

Here's the quote that matters: "Cabinet will confirm on November 29 its decision to move Auckland into the new traffic light system, which we expect will occur soon after the 29th.

Auckland will initially move into Red, the highest level in the traffic light.

"We are also confirming today that the rest of the country will move into the framework at the same time as Auckland. Those parts of the country with lower vaccination rates will move into the new system at Red."

She was asked what "soon after the 29th" meant, and replied that people were familiar with the way changes had been made in the past.

Previously, the pattern has been to announce a change on Monday effective at 11.59pm on Tuesday.

That means 1 December still seems the most likely date for the big move, unless a new reason for caution emerges, and it's going to mean fundamental change.

Lockdowns end and businesses can open. There will be public health measures, and Red is similar to the current Level 2 or Level 2.5. People will have vaccination certificates allowing them entry into events, bars, restaurants and shops that decide to restrict entry.

Under Red and Orange, which most of the country will be under, venues that choose not to use vaccination certificates for entry will suffer. Hospitality will be contactless pickup only, gyms and hairdressers can't open without using certificates.

Ardern made the point, several times, that the traffic light system was safer than the alert levels.

The reason is that under alert levels vaccinated and unvaccinated people mix together, there's no way to separate them. Using traffic lights and vaccination certificates, there is.

To understand what each traffic light means, it's worth looking at Stuff's Traffic Light System at a Glance.

By moving early the government has set aside the target of every DHB reaching 90 per cent full vaccination. Some are likely to get there by the end of the month but most won't and some will take much longer.

National's leader Judith Collins accused the government of confused and contradictory messaging.

"It was less than four weeks ago the prime minister announced a 90 per cent DHB target, now it has been abandoned," she said.

"It is clear that the DHB target was only ever about buying the government time to get its vaccine certificates sorted."

National's Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said the contract for delivery of the vaccination passes was only signed on 13 October.

"It's been obvious to everyone since the start of the year that New Zealand would need proof of vaccination and a vaccine certificate in some form, but only in recent months has the government bothered to do any work to get a scheme ready," he said.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins released details of how to get vaccination certificates on Wednesday, a few hours before Ardern's announcement. The system went live at 9am, and by the time Ardern held her 1pm briefing more than 60,000 had been downloaded.

No caption

Photo: Robert Kelly

They're the vital component of the traffic light system, and it seems people couldn't wait to get hold of them. Despite Hipkins urging patience the system was briefly overloaded. By the end of the week it seemed to be working smoothly.

Whether it will work smoothly when people start presenting them to get into places is another matter. The app that shops will use to verify the certificates isn't ready yet, Hipkins said it soon would be.

There are likely to be queues and almost certainly bad temper before shops and their customers are familiar with using them.

And that's without considering how people without certificates will behave when they're turned away.

Fraud will almost certainly become an issue, at some level. Stuff reported on Thursday: "The Ministry of Health has been unable to provide answers on whether it has incorporated anti-fraud measures into My Covid Passes to stop unvaccinated people using other people's vaccine passes."

The report said the ministry was also unable to confirm whether businesses would need to perform ID checks to make sure the person named on the pass was in fact the person presenting it.

"It said it also needed more time to say what, if any, anti-fraud measures it had put in place, for example to stop people from printing or downloading multiple passes and passing them on to others."

Ardern's other big announcement on Wednesday was that Auckland's border would open on 15 December.

To get out they will have to be fully vaccinated (another vital role certificates will play) or have a negative test before departure.

Central Auckland at midday on 27 August.

Central Auckland at midday on 27 August. Photo: RNZ / Robert Smith

After four months in lockdown Aucklanders were expected to leave in droves, RNZ reported.

It quoted Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts saying traditionally Auckland emptied out over Christmas.

Shortly after Ardern's announcement, online traffic to Air New Zealand's website more than doubled. From 15 December the airline will require certificates or a negative test for travellers.

Police will be responsible for managing the exodus and checking the vaccination status of those who leave. There's no way everyone can be checked.

"Think about it similar to our approach with breath testing - anywhere, anytime," Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told Morning Report. "People should expect that if they're not compliant they're very likely to get a fine."

Te Tai Tokerau border control spokesman Hone Harawira told Checkpoint spot checks would be "absolutely useless in stopping the flood of Aucklanders" into Northland.

The border regime will last until 17 January, and Ardern indicated that would be the end of it.

By then, vaccination rates would be even higher, she said.

"We will have used testing and vaccine certificates to really slow down any potential spread of Covid. But we do also need to move into a phase were we don't have hard borders in New Zealand any more. They were always temporary."

It's that "potential spread" after the Auckland border opens that's going to be the real test for the traffic lights and certificates system.

"The decision to allow travel in and out of Auckland from December 15 will mean a lot more cases in a lot more places," the Herald's Derek Cheng said.

"There will also be a lot more cases in Auckland before travel begins."

Cheng said it was known that household gatherings were the main way Delta spread "and while Red will mean these gatherings will only be allowed for up to 10 people, this won't really be enforceable."

Canterbury University professor and Te Pūnaha Matatini investigator Michael Plank told RNZ the changes would result in Covid-19 spreading throughout the country and there was a risk cases could be high and rising when the change happened.

"Where these cases land in highly vaccinated communities it's likely the virus will hit a dead end and fizzle out," he said.

"But cases that find their way into under-vaccinated communities will be able to spark serious outbreaks."

There was a new 1News Colmar Brunton poll this week, showing Labour losing two points to 42 per cent and National gaining two to 28 per cent.

ACT was steady on 14 while the Greens gained one point to 9 per cent.

Jacinda Ardern topped the preferred prime minister stakes with 39 per cent, but she had dropped five points.

ACT leader David Seymour was on 11 per cent and National's Judith Collins on 5 per cent.

The results showed Labour and the Greens would be able to form a government if an election was held now.

Stuff drew attention to the approval/disapproval ratings, saying they were bad news for Collins.

The report said shortly after Collins became leader in July 2020 the Colmar Brunton poll gave her an approval rating of 50 per cent and a disapproval rating of 23 per cent - a net score of plus 27 per cent.

In the latest polls she had fallen to an approval rating of 25 per cent and a disapproval rating of 57 per cent - a net score of negative 31 per cent.

"There have been rumblings within the National Party over Collins' leadership and while National's polling performance has improved, Collins' personal approval will be of concern," it said.

In a Stuff report the following day Collins gave a strange reason for the fall in her approval rating. She said Labour voters didn't like being told they were wrong.

"It's very hard when you're the opposition leader having to tell people that what they got sold at the election was a pup," she said.

"They were voting for a safe Covid response and a government that was going to keep out the Greens and look after the economy - what they've found is a government that has utterly failed."

Collins said voters didn't like people who pointed this out. "No one wants someone to tell them that, no one likes the person who has to tell them that, that's the way it goes."

It's questionable where the attitude of Labour voters is affecting Collins's performance ratings, they would disapprove of her anyway. And there's nothing unusual about opposition leaders trashing the government, they don't do much else. It's called "holding the government to account".

On the matter of Collins' holding on to her position, Herald political editor Claire Trevett reported this week that Simon Bridges' road to regaining the leadership could have hit a pothole.

"A counter-offensive is being mounted by some MPs who hope Christopher Luxon can eventually be persuaded to step up instead," she said.

"The Herald understands some MPs, including Chris Bishop, are trying to put the brakes on any leadership change in the short term and have sounded out Luxon about whether he would be willing to take on the job this term."

Luxon denied anyone had approached him. Bridges has consistently said he has no intention of challenging Collins.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, with 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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