ANALYSIS:

It is very encouraging to see the daily case numbers in Auckland plateauing as the country prepares to move to the traffic light system, and hairdressers and barbers in Auckland get ready to open from Thursday.

By then, Aucklanders’ hair will have entered day 100 in lockdown growth, and allowing these luscious locks to be lopped off is the least risky way for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to test the traffic light system.

There are way fewer people in close proximity to each other in an indoor environment at the hairdresser compared to the other places that can have up to 100 people under the system’s Red setting: hospitality and gyms, and gatherings including church services, weddings and funerals.

Hairdresser freedom would have made less sense a few weeks ago, but the outbreak in Auckland appears to have stabilised.

The R value – the average number of people that one case infects – has dropped from between 1.2 and 1.3 at the start of the month to about 1, according to Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank.

This means the outbreak isn’t really growing anymore, which may seem odd given that daily case numbers rose above 200 again yesterday.

But the seven-day rolling average is 186, while the number of cases in hospital have hovered between 70 and 88. These numbers are also nationwide, rather than just Auckland.

The health system, including ICU beds, has not been overwhelmed.

There is still reason for caution, however, because the numbers reflect what happened in the community roughly two weeks ago.

Any increase in cases from moving Auckland to 3.2 – which happened 13 days ago, opening up retail and public services such as museums and libraries – may still be yet to come through in daily numbers.

The same goes for the return of Years 1 to 10 students, who went back to school on November 15.

“That could still have an effect,” says Plank, particularly from the latter.

“We know quite a lot of the cases are concentrated in school-aged children. The schools going back could certainly contribute to an increase in transmission.”

Over a third – 35 per cent – of active cases are under age 20.

Moving Auckland to the traffic light system from December 3 will also likely see the R value creep up again.

That’s because household bubbles will be no more, and people in Auckland will no doubt want to visit friends and family all over the city.

Plank adds that what will happen is very difficult to predict.

“Some people may also remain quite cautious in their behaviour. This is something we’ve seen in other countries opening up- not everyone necessarily goes out straight away to the bar and the nightclub.”

Marking December 3 as Traffic Light System day gives the Government eight days to test the Covid pass, and an incentive for people to obtain one; so far only about a third of Kiwis who are fully vaccinated have done so.

It would be a minor miracle if everyone could obtain their Covid pass and use it easily, and businesses could scan them without any headaches.

Getting a hold of them is already causing headaches for foreign nationals, who have to call the ministry to verify their identity on an 0800 number that was either engaged or unanswered when the Herald tried to call it yesterday.

There’s also likely to be some public confusion, given the results of a Newshub-Reid Research poll showing only 31 per cent said they fully understood the traffic light system.

The Government has a week and a half to clarify matters, as well as pass a law under urgency making it all legal.

It also means there will be 12 days between Aucklanders no longer being bound to their homes and them being able to leave the city.

If more movement and more home gatherings leads to an uptick in cases, it might not be evident by December 15, when movement across the Auckland boundary will be permitted.

From then, troubleshooting issues with the Covid pass may no longer be the Government’s biggest headache.

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