SYDNEY - New Zealand will adopt what is being called a "traffic light" system to curb the spread of COVID-19 and limit the use of lockdowns.
New Zealand's planned traffic light system has red, amber and green categories, and gives more freedoms to the fully vaccinated. The biggest city, Auckland, is a red zone, mainly because of its high number of COVID-19 cases. Residents there are allowed into cafes, gyms and hairdressers, but there are limits on capacity and proof of vaccination is mandatory.
Much of the country is under the less stringent amber traffic light. The settings will be reviewed in two weeks.
Michael Baker, a public health and epidemiology professor at the University of Otago in Wellington, said the new system is designed to boost vaccination rates.
"There is a band across the central North Island of districts with relatively low vaccine coverage," he said. "They are automatically going into the red-light classification. This system has two main purposes. One is really to limit transmission of the virus, so it means that if you are indoors, you are indoors with other vaccinated people. But the other thing it does it is sending a very strong message to the unvaccinated, a very strong nudge -- you need to get vaccinated. So, I think it will be effective at doing that."
New Zealand's Health Ministry estimates that about 86% of the eligible population has received two vaccine doses.
New Zealand has had some of the world's toughest pandemic controls.
The country's international borders are expected to remain closed to most foreign nationals until well into next year.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the omicron variant is a reminder of why New Zealand needs to maintain its "careful approach" to the virus.
With 5 million people, the South Pacific country has recorded 12,000 coronavirus cases and 44 deaths since the pandemic began.
The traffic light system replaces previous coronavirus alert levels. A recent delta variant outbreak forced New Zealand government to abandon its COVID-zero strategy in favor of a strategy that prioritizes containment. The previous approach was designed to eliminate the virus in New Zealand through border closures and strict lockdowns.