Covid-19 experts have praised the Government's action on pausing the arrival of returnees but believe more time is needed to prepare the country for an inevitable Omicron outbreak.
Overnight it was announced that the upcoming MIQ room release was postponed as the Omicron variant loomed on New Zealand's doorstep.
In a statement, head of MIQ Chris Bunny said there had been a tenfold increase in positive Covid-19 cases at the border compared to December.
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said while the decision may anger many New Zealanders, he was pleased to see the pause on MIQ.
"No one wants to do this, most of us have been affected in various ways by the limited travel to New Zealand.
"We are all affected but I think it's the right thing to do, it gives us the opportunity to delay entry of Omicron for a period," he said.
Today, there were 56 new cases detected at the border.
"To date, there have been 370 Omicron Covid-19 cases detected at the border since 1 December, and 32 cases of the Delta variant," the Ministry of Health said a statement on Wednesday.
University of Otago professor of public health Nick Wilson agreed with Baker, saying the current situation in MIQ is getting "very serious" with a seven-day rolling average of border cases at 35.
"It was a completely unsuitable situation, the Government had to do something so this is a good first step, " he said.
Baker said the number of infected people at the border needs to be turned down and action needs to be taken "now".
"I think there's a great chance to ask the Government and ask the Ministry of Health [about] what they are going to do about turning down the numbers for tomorrow, the next day and the rest of January and February."
Earlier today, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said we have to recognise that MIQ was very full
Michael Baker said the number of infected people at the border needs to be turned down and action needs to be taken "now". Photo / Supplied
"We've got a system that has generally operated with two or three positive cases at the border; it's now operating at between 40-50 positive cases per day at the border. That's meaning we're having to convert a lot more rooms into quarantine facilities and that is putting that system under quite a lot of strain."
The pause impacted rooms for March and April, Hipkins said, rather than January and February as those rooms had already been released.
"I acknowledge that people want to know when they're going to book. People also want to know whether they're going to need to book as well. I think there is a lot of people who would prefer to isolate at home ... rather than have to book through MIQ."
Wilson said he would like to see the Government take a stance on flights arriving from countries that are currently high risk.
"It would be ideal if the policy was sophisticated in the long run, with the number of people coming in from different countries was adjusted by the level of risk."
While countries like the United States and Australia are currently battling large outbreaks of Omicron, Wilson large Omicron outbreaks may only last for a few months.
"It could be that flights could resume relatively quickly but if we really want to get extra time to allow New Zealanders to get boosted and for children to get vaccinated and to actually learn have to deal with his outbreak.
This will give New Zealand extra time which Willson called "very valuable".
Wilson said he would like to see the situation in MIQ "stabilised" before an Omicron outbreak occurs in the community
"We just can't sustain many of these types of events before an outbreak occurs in the community."
Speaking on the Government's traffic light system, Wilson believes an "Omicron appropriate" system must be created.
"The traffic light system has been good for getting people encouraged to get vaccinated, it probably helped over summer but it hasn't got all of the other safeguards that were in the previous alert level system."
Nick Wilson said he would like to see the Government take a stance on flights arriving from countries that are currently high risk. Photo / Supplied
While lockdowns may not be necessary, Baker said employers may need to start encouraging people to work from home to lessen the possible transmission of Omicron.
"The number one priority it to basically rapidly turn down the number of infected people arriving," he said.
Plans for what happens when Omicron makes its way into the New Zealand community were "well advanced", Hipkins said, and Cabinet would be discussing the matter today.
In terms of any changes around the Community Protection Framework and when the Government would reveal its plan for Omicron, Hipkins said officials were working to give people certainty as quickly as they could.
"In terms of any changes to the protection framework, I don't want to get ahead of the Cabinet discussions on that. That's something we'll talk about at Cabinet."
Hipkins said they we're working very hard to provide certainty in an uncertain environment.
- by Zoe Holland