ANALYSIS: Is Waikato crossing over into a Covid-19 twilight zone?

After more than 40 days of lockdown, Waikato still has a steady trickle of new community cases – seven were reported on Sunday.
Christel Yardley/Stuff
After more than 40 days of lockdown, Waikato still has a steady trickle of new community cases – seven were reported on Sunday.

ANALYSIS: The Waikato region is starting to look a bit like a border town, a front line, a buffer zone between two very different Covid-19 response strategies and soon, two very different sets of rules.

At the northern border, you have Auckland (the source of Waikato’s Delta outbreak), where the Government has abandoned its Covid-19 elimination strategy and is instead now working to suppress the virus.

There are hundreds of new community cases being reported there each week – 181 on Friday, 159 on Saturday, 192 on Sunday – and yet the Super City is gearing up for more freedoms come December.

To the south and to the east, you have the rest of the North Island and the country, where people are living relatively normal lives under level 2, and where the Government continues its Covid-19 elimination strategy.

READ MORE:
* Covid-19: Seven new cases in Waikato, six of them known contacts
* Covid-19: 207 new community cases and one death reported
* Covid-19: Locations of interest in Delta outbreak - November 14

STUFF
The Government's new Covid-19 framework includes a "traffic light" system and widespread vaccination certificate enforcement.

It is a two-speed system – suppression in Auckland, elimination everywhere else.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently said she’s not ruling out an earlier, nationwide move into the traffic light system, but an epidemiologist believes Waikato should stay in the alert level system for now and try to stamp out transmission of the virus.

That’s far from the certainty many in Waikato are hoping for.

After more than 40 days of lockdown, Waikato has found itself in an unenviable position where a steady trickle of new cases means, under the elimination strategy, ongoing restrictions and no bright light at the end of the tunnel.

And yet there are also not enough daily cases in the region for elimination to be considered a lost cause, as in Auckland. Waikato is stuck in the middle.

Parts of Waikato, including Hamilton, have been in level 3 lockdown since October 3, with new community cases of Covid-19 reported in the region on all but three days since then.
Michael Bradley/Getty Images
Parts of Waikato, including Hamilton, have been in level 3 lockdown since October 3, with new community cases of Covid-19 reported in the region on all but three days since then.

Without a national traffic light move, as we approach Christmas and the holiday season most of Aotearoa will be in alert level 2 – barring a major outbreak in another part of the country (like Taranaki, Taupō, Tararua, Rotorua, or Northland).

Shops, bars, restaurants and cafés will be open and buzzing, people will use their weekends to visit family and friends in other towns and cities, and beaches and parks will be packed.

That will be the reality in Northland and everywhere south of Waikato.

By the beginning of December, a similar picture is also expected to appear in Auckland, when the city hits its 90 per cent vaccination milestone and moves into the new traffic light system.

This will give Aucklanders more freedoms than the phased stepping-down through alert level 3. It will look a lot like life under level 2, but with restrictions for unvaccinated people.

What will Christmas look like in Hamilton?
Mark Taylor/Stuff
What will Christmas look like in Hamilton?

Aucklanders still won’t be able to travel to other parts of the country, and there will be some public health measures and capacity limits in place, but city-wide restrictions will be lifted for those with vaccination certificates.

All schools, public facilities, early childhood centres and businesses will be open, including hospitality venues.

It sounds like something to look forward to, something to instil hope, especially if you have been in lockdown for as long as Aucklanders have. It’s being called “freedom day”.

So, what does Waikato, the only other region currently locked down, have to look forward to?

When is Waikato’s freedom day?

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate has been pushing for the Waikato region to also move into the traffic light system once it reaches 90 per cent fully vaccinated.

At the current rate, that could happen in mid-December – just in time for Christmas.

The idea would almost certainly have the backing of the business community.

“Anything that speeds up the re-opening of business and the sensible opening of society from these oppressive lockdowns would be welcomed by the Chamber,” Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive Don Good said.

However, Southgate’s proposal has generated concern from Waikato-Tainui, which is nervous about moving too quickly into the traffic light system if the eligible Māori population hasn’t reached 95 per cent vaccination, which is what the iwi has been advocating.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate has been pushing for the Waikato region to move into the traffic light system once it reaches 90 per cent fully vaccinated.
Tom Lee/Stuff
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate has been pushing for the Waikato region to move into the traffic light system once it reaches 90 per cent fully vaccinated.

Southgate has written to the Prime Minister’s office and local Labour MPs with her request, but hasn’t had a response.

“I understand Auckland is critical with a big population but we are not insignificant here in Waikato, yet we barely rate a mention sometimes,” she said this week.

“We are coming up to Christmas now and people are thinking about the number of weeks ahead and businesses – hospitality and events, activity businesses – are wondering if they will have a future over the summer Christmas period.

“And Hamiltonians feel invisible in the whole conversation. They’ll tune into the updates but don’t see anything that relates to the Hamilton situation and end up feeling more frustrated.”

Stuff asked Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins if, as per the Government’s current plan, Waikato would be staying in the alert level system until all 20 DHBs in New Zealand had reached the 90 per cent vaccination milestone.

Is there any chance this might change?

“We know restrictions in Waikato have been challenging and that people are looking for certainty,” he said.

“At this stage we can’t provide specific details on when Waikato will move into the new traffic light system. Cabinet will review the progress Auckland and the rest of the country have made towards transitioning to the new framework on November 29.”

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government can't provide specific details on when Waikato will move into the new traffic light system.
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government can't provide specific details on when Waikato will move into the new traffic light system.

Hipkins said, starting next week, government officials will engage with stakeholders, including local government, on implementation of the framework, “including how we can transition from the alert level system”.

He said the latest vaccination data for Waikato is encouraging but that Covid-19 cases continue to increase in the area, “which is why Waikato is at a higher alert level than some other parts of the country”.

There were 25 new Waikato community cases reported on Thursday, 15 on Friday, nine on Saturday, and seven on Sunday.

Of the eligible population in Waikato, 89 per cent have had one dose of the vaccine and 78 per cent have had two.

On Monday, the region’s alert level settings are being reviewed by Cabinet.

To progress would mean at least a move to alert level 3 – step 3.

Hospitality venues such as cafés, bars and restaurants would then be able to re-open with a limit of 50 people, and the same goes for event facilities such as cinemas, casinos, and theatres.

Close-contact businesses such as hairdressers, barbers and beauty salons would also reopen, and social gatherings – both indoors and outdoors – would be allowed with a limit of 50 people.

Hipkins said the current case numbers in Waikato suggest without restrictions “the spread could be much greater”.

“We want to ease restrictions safely to ensure that people can go about their daily lives a bit more normally, while continuing to minimise any risk of spread.”

He said alert level settings in each region are considered separately and decisions are made based on the latest public health information available.

Under alert level 3 – step 3, hospitality venues such as cafés, bars and restaurants would be able to reopen with a limit of 50 people.
Stuff
Under alert level 3 – step 3, hospitality venues such as cafés, bars and restaurants would be able to reopen with a limit of 50 people.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker believes Waikato should stay in the alert level system and that the Government should stick to its plan.

“The thing is, outside Auckland, the country’s still in elimination mode, so the goal is to stamp out transmission in the Waikato and then the Waikato can move down to alert level 2 like the rest of the country.”

Baker said there is not a very good boundary around the Waikato, “so if the outbreak really accelerates in the Waikato, that’s a threat to the whole plan for New Zealand”.

He said the Government’s plan is still reasonable, “that’s going to get us through this transition in the best possible shape I think”.

“The plan the Government’s outlined for transitioning is quite pro-public health and I think it’s good if we can stick to that. I would be disappointed if we gave up on that plan early, unless there's a very good reason.”

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker believes Waikato should stay in the alert level system and that the Government should stick to its plan.
SUPPLIED
University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker believes Waikato should stay in the alert level system and that the Government should stick to its plan.

Baker said there are still unexplained, unlinked community cases appearing in Waikato every day.

Rising vaccination rates, contact-tracing, testing, and the alert level system may be collectively preventing the outbreak from escalating further, but currently that does not appear to be enough to eliminate the virus completely.

“The best thing in the Waikato would be to stamp out these remaining chains of transmission and drop down to alert level 2. That would give you the best of both worlds, you won’t have a circulating virus, and you’ll have relatively high freedoms.”