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Cabinet has agreed to move Waikato to alert level 2 from midnight tomorrow - and the rollout of booster vaccination shots will start from November 29.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcements this afternoon, after Cabinet met to discuss the country's Covid response.
She also said there is a strong view from the Ministry of Health to move to the new Covid protection framework "earlier" than previously outlined, and the Government is seeking expert views on this.
A decision will still be made on November 29 about introducing the new framework, Ardern said.
An announcement on Auckland's border will be made on Wednesday.
Ardern said contact tracing will soon be the way to deal with cases, instead of lockdowns.
Ardern said some people have put to the Government the idea of "reverse boundaries", such as putting boundaries in other regions outside Auckland, but she said this would be much more difficult.
Booster shot rollout
Anyone aged 18 and over who got vaccinated more than six months ago will be eligible for a booster shot from November 29.
Ardern said it was a "belts and braces approach" and that boosters topped up immunity back to above the 90 per cent mark.
The booster shots would be free and available for anybody in New Zealand, whether or not they were first vaccinated here or overseas.
Booster shots would be available at vaccination clinics, pharmacies and GPs, and could also be booked through the online Book My Vaccine website.
The first vaccinations in New Zealand were given nine months ago, in February, to border and MIQ workers, health workers and the elderly and immuno-suppressed.
"You don't need to rush to get this done," Ardern said.
Pfizer protection ranges from 85 to 90 percent, she said.
She said the country had enough vaccination supply to cover children being vaccinated and people receiving booster shots.
There were now 144,000 people who had been vaccinated for six months or more and 455,847 would hit that mark by the end of the year.
Many healthcare and border workers would be among that group because most had their first vaccinations more than six months ago.
Efforts would also be made to ensure older people, who were also vaccinated early under the vaccine rollout, had good access to the boosters, but they would not be rationed.
Waikato alert level change
Ardern said today's decision about the Waikato is a "temporary one".
She said the Government is "very keen" to move into the new Covid-19 framework.
"In some ways, the Covid-19 protection framework provides more safety ... than alert level 2," Ardern said.
She said social distancing and masks remain paramount in the area.
Waikato has the second highest rate of testing in the country and the area is around 3000 doses shy of reaching 90 per cent fully vaccinated.
Director general of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health team was clear last week that it was appropriate for Waikato to move down a level, and they felt it was "more simple and more consistent with the rest of the country" to move to alert level 2.
Bloomfield said vaccination plays two important roles - reducing infection and the likelihood to get "very unwell and die" and testing can't do those things.
When asked about her trip to Auckland last week, Ardern said she will look to have formal talks with the hospitality sector on future visits.
Ardern said work is under way to make sure people who don't have New Zealand forms of ID can sign up to the vaccine passport online.
Ardern said about cases seen in recent days outside of Auckland that there is either a clear link or a very strong suggestion as to what has occurred.
Bloomfield said cases can be isolated and identified and are not "widespread".
Bloomfield said more than 30 people were at a gathering in the Wairarapa that an infected person attended, but many of them have been tested and vaccinated.
Ardern said she "strongly" agrees with the view that the new Covid protection framework is "better suited" for a vaccinated environment and the country can move into it "perhaps sooner than expected".
Ardern said she would expect Kiwirail to deal with any issues with employment matters at an operational level, including by the board.
A large portion of Waikato from the Auckland boundary to Mokau in the south, and from the coast to Karapiro, is in level three.
Areas in lockdown include extensive rural districts and the city of Hamilton.
The outbreak was creeping through the lower North Island over the weekend and is now knocking on Wellington's door.
Third doses or booster shots of the vaccine have already been recommended for severely immunocompromised people aged 12 and older.
Earlier, epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker said any changes to alert levels today would have to rely on feedback from frontline health workers, who could assess the likelihood of undetected transmission happening.
"You have to be pretty confident that you have a good handle on transmission," the University of Otago public health specialist said.
"People don't always come forward if they have symptoms."
He said health workers would have the best insights into the nuances and details of local cases, but areas outside Auckland should still be trying to eliminate the virus.
Baker said most available evidence indicated booster shots were best used about six months after a person's second dose.
"The biggest benefit is it reduces your ability to transmit infection," he said.
"It looks like at a certain point, everyone will need a booster.
"To help dampen down the outbreak, it's really important their resistance to getting infected stays high."
Today the Ministry of Health reported 173 new Covid-19 cases in the community.
The vast majority of new cases were in Auckland, but seven were in Waikato.
Of the Waikato cases, three were from Ōtorohanga, two from Hamilton, one from Kawhia, and one from Huntly. Five of the new cases were linked.
Today, two new cases were reported n Northland, one in Lakes district - the area in and around Rotorua - and there was also a new case in Wairarapa.
The Prime Minister earlier today clarified that a so-called Freedom Day for Auckland will not happen on Monday November 29.
On that day, Cabinet will decide the date for a major easing of restrictions, but Ardern expected it to be very soon after November 29.
For more information visitcovid19.govt.nz.
This article was first published on the NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.