By Vaughan Granier

The recently revealed COVID-19 protection framework – otherwise known as the traffic light system – promises greater freedoms and fewer lockdowns when 90 per cent of Aotearoa’s eligible population is fully vaccinated.

But while many employers will be pleased to see the back of nationwide lockdowns, there remains some confusion and uncertainty around exactly how the traffic light system and restrictions will apply to business. In this explainer, we highlight everything you, as an employer, need to know to prepare your workforce for the new framework.

What is the traffic light system?

The traffic light system proposes a flexible three-level approach to managing COVID-19 in the community without nationwide lockdowns and with more freedom for vaccinated New Zealanders. There are three levels, each a different colour of the symbolic traffic light:

  • Red (restrict): An outbreak is threatening at-risk people and the functioning of our health system, and we must act to protect both.
  • Orange (reduce): Growing case numbers are putting pressure on the health system and increasing the risk for vulnerable people. Some community action is required to limit the outbreak.
  • Green (readiness): there may be some COVID-19 cases, but transmission is limited. Vulnerable people and our health system are not at risk.

These levels can change when needed to help control an outbreak in local areas.

When do we move from the old Alert Levels to the new traffic light levels?

The Traffic Light System will be implemented throughout New Zealand on Friday 3 December 2021. Auckland will move into the traffic light system at Red and, on 29 November, Cabinet will determine the levels at which the rest of the country will move to come Friday 3 December. The traffic light level for each region will be decided based on vaccination rates and case numbers.

In welcome news for Hairdressers and Barbers in Auckland, Cabinet has decided to trial the vaccine passport system at their businesses from Thursday, 25 November. To re-open for this trial, employers in this sector must require vaccine passes and have fully vaccinated staff.

Will Aucklanders be free to leave Auckland when the region moves to Red?

Under red in the traffic light system, boundary restrictions may still apply. However, the Prime Minister has indicated that from 15 December 2021 until 17 January 2022, Auckland’s border would open to permit travel for all vaccinated people and those who return a negative test within three days of travelling. Our understanding at this stage is that the border will return to being a hard border on 17 January; subject to interim developments.

What is the difference between the traffic light levels and the original Alert Levels?

There are three differences between the old alert level system and the new one:

  1. Vaccine certificates can allow fully vaccinated people to have more freedom.
  2. Certain businesses can require vaccine certificates to continue to operate at each coloured alert level: red, orange, and green.
  3. Instead of nationwide lockdowns, the Government will use highly targeted and localised lockdowns if needed.

What are vaccine certificates?

Vaccine certificates provide evidence that a person is fully vaccinated. Most people will have a card from their vaccination appointments that they can use. Digital vaccination certificates are now available here.

Can any business require vaccine certificates?

It’s important to note that vaccine certificates are a tool to enable freer trade while preventing the spread of Delta by controlling access to premises.

Under the traffic light system, some high-risk and close-contact organisations – such as hospitality, events, gyms, retail, sports, and faith-based gatherings – may legally require a vaccination certificate for entry. A vaccine certificate requirement will enable these businesses to trade with fewer or no restrictions. As a result of requiring vaccine certificates for all customers and patrons, a business can insist that employees must also be vaccinated to gain access to the premises.

Vaccination certificates will be optional for many other organisations and locations. Restrictions on employees requiring a vaccination certificate will be role-based, and subject to a health and safety risk assessment for their specific role.

Essential services and businesses (e.g., supermarkets, health care services) cannot require vaccination certificates from their customers for entry.

If my business is making vaccine certificates a requirement, then can we also mandate vaccinations for staff?

In the interest of public health, the Government has confirmed that workers at businesses where customers are required to show evidence of vaccination will also need to be vaccinated.

What if my business won’t require a vaccine certificate?

If you choose not to (or cannot) require a vaccine certificate, your business will have to operate with restrictions on capacity and physical distancing as well as require appropriate PPE to keep staff and customers safe. You may also need to close during an orange or red level.

So, I can require vaccine certificates if I can justify the need with a health and safety risk assessment?

Role-based health and safety risk assessments continue to be a foundational requirement for mandating vaccinations in workplaces that are not considered high-risk, close contact, or operate in a sector where vaccination mandates are already in place.

This risk assessment is not a one-size-fits-all approach; you’ll need to conduct one for every role you believe is high-risk enough to warrant vaccination for the work to be performed safely.

On 26 October 2021, The Government announced they’d be legislating a risk assessment process later this year to help businesses conduct these assessments fairly and mitigate any risk of a personal grievance claim. In the interim, WorkSafe provides a helpful guide on conducting this risk assessment here.

Are there different rules for specific industries that are more customer-facing than others?

The Government has clarified specific guidance for hospitality and retail businesses:

Hospitality (food services but not accommodation providers):

  • can choose to require evidence of vaccination for entry or not;
  • If vaccine certificates are required, the business will face fewer restrictions at red, and be able to trade freely at orange and green; or
  • If vaccine certificates are not required, the hospitality business must follow trade restrictions at every level.


  • does not require vaccine certificates for customers, so therefore there’s no requirement for employees to be vaccinated;
  • you may mandate vaccinations depending on the outcome of a role-based health and safety risk assessment;
  • at green, retail is open to all with face masks encouraged; and
  • at orange and red, retail can open with social distancing limits.

What will the different traffic light levels look like for businesses that require vaccine certificates vs business that don’t?


Vaccine certificates

Up to 100 people

One metre physical distancing

Onsite learning, one-metre distancing

No limits No limits

No vaccine certificates

Contactless payments

Gatherings up to 10 people

No close contact businesses open

Distance learning

Gatherings up to 50 people

One-metre distancing

No close contact businesses open

Gatherings up to 100 people

One metre distancing

Close contact businesses can open with face-coverings and physical distance


What steps should I take to prepare my workforce before the move to the traffic light system on Monday 29 November?

You must begin to think about and talk about vaccinations in the workplace – especially if you plan to introduce vaccine certificates or vaccination may become a condition of employment for specific roles.

When you leave these discussions to the last minute, you risk rushing a sensitive and complicated employment process. A lack of action now may jeopardise the health and safety of others or lead to a personal grievance claim against your business.

The first thing you need to do is determine your stance on whether vaccine certificates or vaccination requirements will impact your workers’ terms and conditions of employment.

If you believe vaccination is required, then you must begin your consultation process. Here, you’ll discuss the proposed new framework with your workforce and explain how your business plans to operate within the new system. As a first step, work with employees or representatives to conduct a health and safety risk assessment for each position. Then, based on the outcome of these assessments, you must determine which roles would require vaccination and how this might impact existing employees.

I go into more detail about how to have the vaccine conversation at work in this guide.

How do I gather vaccine information without breaching my employees’ privacy rights?

New Zealand has strict privacy laws, and your employees are entitled to know that their vaccine information will be stored and treated in accordance with this legislation. Some of the methods and processes to consider when gathering vaccine information should include:

  • Informing your workforce about the importance of vaccinations using official guidance, posters, and communication.
  • Provide clarity around why your company will or may require vaccinations.
  • Use a private and secure method of collection and storage for vaccine information.
  • Report confidentially across your vaccine information database to help you address unvaccinated workers.

What are the general principles to follow when consulting with unvaccinated employees?

When you have a clear understanding of how vaccination requirements will impact your workforce, you can follow these four steps to consult with unvaccinated workers in affected roles:

  1. Plan how you will discuss and resolve where non-vaccination may impact employment.
  2. Send individual letters and begin a discussion.
  3. Meet to problem solve and seek non-termination outcomes (redeployment, changes to work).
  4. Finalise the process: redeploy, agree upon work variations, or terminate on notice.

For a more in-depth look at how to talk about vaccination in the workplace, read this blog.

I’m hiring right now; can I ask candidates for their vaccination status?

You can make vaccination a condition of employment for a role providing you can justify this with a health and safety risk assessment.

If vaccination is or will be a requirement, you should advise your candidates of this and let them know that refusal to answer may affect their suitability for the role.

However, I wouldn’t recommend deselecting candidates based on vaccination status alone. What if that person is your top pick in all other areas! If that candidate makes it to your final shortlist, this is when you can have a private discussion with them to indicate that they’re in your top selection, but to be eligible for the role, they must agree to get vaccinated. If they accept, then you can make a conditional offer of employment based on their vaccination status.

I have an employee who refuses to get vaccinated despite vaccination requirements impacting their ability to work in their role. Termination is my only option; what do I do?

First, make sure you have consulted with this employee and have exhausted every option of redeployment. When you’re sure you have acted in good faith and termination is your only option, then you can begin the termination process.

Parliament has outlined that if you terminate an employee due to vaccination status, you must give them at least four weeks’ paid notice or more if their employment agreement stipulates a lengthier notice period.

I share further guidance on managing a restructuring and redundancy process here.

I need some specific advice for my business, who can I call?

We’re glad you asked! We know that keeping up with changing advice around COVID-19 alert levels can be a headache. If you need advice on managing vaccination requirements in your workplace or any other HR of H&S matter, the workplace experts at HR Assured can help you.

If you’re an HR Assured client, you can call our Telephone Advisory Service anytime for support.

If you’re not an HR assured client, we’d like to invite you to try our Telephone Advisory Service for free. Contact us today to arrange a confidential, no-obligation chat.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years of experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.