Government pushing ahead with traffic light system despite strong opposition

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

The Government’s pushing ahead with the traffic light system despite strong opposition from independent health experts and Māori leaders.

A group of Māori organisations including hapū, iwi leaders, health professionals, the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the NZ Māori Council met with Government ministers over the weekend to discuss the proposed traffic light system.

The traffic light system will replace the alert level system. More details will be announced on Friday, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signalled the implementation of the system will be tied to vaccination rates and vaccination targets.

1News understands the green light setting would be for when cases are isolated and restrictions would be very limited, like Alert Level 1.

If case numbers increase to form clusters the orange light setting would mean limits on entry into venues, with vaccination status to be a factor in whether people get let in.

At the red setting, when there are multiple clusters in different areas, there'd be restrictions on gatherings and travel, but it would be more akin to an Alert Level 2.5 than a lockdown.

Mike Smith from the National Iwi Chairs forum says “very serious issues” with the traffic light framework were raised “by everyone” during Zoom meetings which were held with the Government’s Māori caucus on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“After forming a position on the governments traffic light model, a strong joint statement was presented to the Crown last night to make it absolutely clear that we reject the traffic light framework,” Smith says.

“We fully understand the need to urgently develop systems to manage Covid within communities, however serious equity issues have yet to be resolved - such as community capacity to manage isolation; hospital capacity to manage extreme cases and care; wrap around care; welfare support and resourcing.”

National Iwi Chairs Pandemic response group spokesperson Lisa Tumahai says Māori groups should have been consulted on the plan “right from the start”.

“Māori and Pacific vaccination rates have to increase to the same level as other New Zealanders, otherwise the infection and mortality rate will disproportionally effect our vulnerable communities”

National Urban Māori Authority Lady Tureiti Moxon says “a lot more consultation” needs to happen before Māori groups will get on board as 66 per cent of New Zealanders overall are fully vaccinated but only 45 per cent of Māori have received both doses.

“What I would like to see is the Māori voice in there, that we are co-designing that whole thing together and it’s not just thrust on us to make a decision about it.

“We have to be realistic. When we came out of lockdown last time the numbers spiked, all the predictions are saying it’s going to get worse, it's not going to get better, it's certainly going to get worse for Māori and Pasifika in particular.”

It comes after serious concern with the traffic light system were voiced by a group of independent virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts during a meeting with Ministry of Health representatives and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard last Thursday.

Experts in the meeting told 1News there was “near unanimous” opposition to the traffic light system which has been described as “unworkable”, “not-fit for purpose” and “too simplistic”.

Māori leaders and independent experts alike have told 1 News that consultation has felt rushed, with one saying the meeting felt like a “sham consultation”.

“There’s real consultation and sham consultation. Sham consultation is when the decision has already been made anyway.”

Another expert told 1News they were worried Māori and Pasifika would bear the brunt of the changes proposed.

“The isn’t a lot of support for traffic light system, although it seems elegant and simple, with only three levels it’s more problematic.

"There appears to be confusion among the experts so you can imagine it’ll be problematic when it goes to the public.

“Nearly 30 of NZ’s best public health brains have either trashed it or are ambivalent about it. It’s not the car that we want to buy” they told 1News.

Another expert who was consulted on the plan says the loosening of restrictions earlier this month and the resulting jump in case numbers means things are going to be “messy” in 2022.

“Traffic lights don’t work well when things are messy. We could easily have a major crisis before Christmas. I don’t think a simplified version [of the alert levels] is going to work. If that version of the plan is announced, it would suggest they’re not listening.”

When asked about the concerns around the traffic light plan Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hinted at changes to come.

“Whilst we’re sharing that framework, we’re not always at a point where we’ve concluded the way it will be implemented and how we will do it safely. My view is once we talk more about that, that may satisfy some of the concerns that exist.”

She said the Government’s approach will still aim to keep people safe from Covid-19.

“One of the things people are looking for is when will we start using it, and my message is - when we have a highly vaccinated population, and I think that’ll make a big difference for people to hear that.”