ZB

Watch: NZ to red tonight; Omicron circulating in Auckland, possibly South Island, says PM

Author
NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 23 Jan 2022, 9:23am

Watch: NZ to red tonight; Omicron circulating in Auckland, possibly South Island, says PM

Author
NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 23 Jan 2022, 9:23am

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed New Zealand will move to the red traffic light setting at midnight tonight. 

Nine Covid cases in Motueka are confirmed to have the Omicron variant, prompting the decision, Ardern said. 

They attended a wedding in Auckland on January 13 along with a funeral, an amusement park and the Sky Tower in the following days. These events had well over 100 people. 

Omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson area, if not further, Ardern said. 

The Government will be taking a three-stage approach to the point where New Zealand sees 1000 cases a day, Ardern said. 

Stage one will be the familiar stamp it out approach, with contact tracing and testing, including rapid antigen tests. Stage two will be a transition stage. The third stage will see changes to contact tracing, and further details on the three stages will be released at a later date, Ardern said. 

Every region will move to the red setting regardless of whether that area has had a confirmed Omicron case, and Ardern said she expected the country would stay in red for "some weeks". 

"The evidence from overseas suggests it moves very quickly," Ardern said. "Red will make a difference." 

Given New Zealand's low number of Delta cases, we have capacity in our system to slow down the virus, Ardern said. 

"The difference to previous outbreaks is we are now well vaccinated and well prepared," she said. 

Close contacts of cases will be required to isolate for 10 days and follow requirements for testing which will usually be at day five. 

Ardern said the focus was now on getting people their boosters. The Government is sticking to the four-month gap between the second dose and booster but that would be continually reviewed. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson and director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield arrive for an Omicron press conference. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

There are over four and half million RAT tests already in the country and millions more on the way, Ardern said. 

The Government was still sticking with its plans to relax border restrictions by the end of February but that would be done in a staged way. 

Omicron cases 

The decision to move to red has hinged on the results of genome sequencing for several Covid cases with no clear link to the border. 

Nine Omicron-positive people in Motueka are linked to an Air NZ crew member, but director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said today "we don't yet know the source of these community cases". 

Health officials are working to understand how exactly the nine Motukea cases became infected. As they attended a wedding in Auckland the transmission is expected to be high, Bloomfield said. 

It was essential we work out the extent of the spread, Bloomfield said. 

The crew member was potentially infectious while working on five Air New Zealand flights, which are now locations of interest. 

Bloomfield said today it was very important that the first person infected in Motukea got tested. "We are really grateful for that," he said. 

There will people outside of Nelson and Auckland who have travelled to those regions and were encouraged to get tested, he said. 

Bloomfield said there were five domestic flights those cases were on while infectious. 150 people on those flights have been contacted and those efforts continued this morning. 

Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said it was very important that the first person infected in Motukea got tested. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

People were encouraged to check the locations of interest as a number of new sites had been listed, Bloomfield said. 

"If you are symptomatic, please seek a test," he said. "If you don't have symptoms, there is no need to get a test at this point." 

So far, six people have been confirmed to be infected with Omicron in the community after the highly contagious variant slipped through border controls. 

That included two Auckland Airport workers, an MIQ staffer, two close contacts and another person who spent two days moving about in Palmerston North while potentially infectious after being discharged from MIQ. 

Red setting 

Red is the most restrictive traffic light setting, but domestic travel can continue. There would be no more borders around regions, such as the recent Auckland borders. 

While lockdowns would not be widespread, there could be lockdowns localised to a workplace or school, for example, depending on what was happening in the outbreak. 

In red, face coverings are mandatory when travelling on public transport, in retail and to an extent in education. Public facilities and retail outlets are open, with capacity limits. 

A move to the red light setting will mean more restrictions on gatherings and businesses. Photo / Sylvie Whinray 

With a vaccine pass, many businesses and events can have a maximum of 100 people, including hospitality, gyms, weddings and tangihanga. Without passes, hospitality services must remain contactless and the aforementioned gatherings are limited to 25 people. 

Education centres stay open but with extra health measures including year four and up will be required to wear masks. 

Tertiary students must study remotely if they don't have a vaccine pass. 

Gyms and close contact businesses such as hairdressers and beauty salons can open in red as long as public health measures are in place. 

The move will be a cruel blow to hospitality in businesses in Northland, which only moved to orange this week. 

The Government was not considering the closure of hospitality but they would continue to review the situation, Ardern said. 

With the move to the red light setting, Ardern said she and fiancé Clarke Gayford had decided not to go ahead with their wedding. 

"I just join many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like that as a result of the pandemic," she said. "Such is life. I am no different to dare I say thousands of other New Zealanders." 

Schools to open 

Despite Omicron, schools will still open as planned, Ardern said today. 

One of the most important things people can do is have a buddy so that if one does become infected the other could help deliver food and support them, Ardern said, 

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he wants to see more face-to-face learning this year, and schools will deal with the virus differently than they have over the past two years. 

But he says it's possible some schools may have to move to learning from home if they are understaffed because so many teaches have been exposed to Covid. 

Kids will experience disruption if they, a close contact, or someone in their household is sick, but otherwise they will be at school and in class, Hipkins said. 

Financial support 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said today if businesses follow public health measures they could remain open and the economy will continue to operate strongly. 

"At the red level, this is not a lockdown," he said. "Our initial focus is on supporting those workers who are not able to work because they have to self-isolate." 

The short term absent payment is $359 per worker. 

There are other business support packages available and further detail was available on the Ministry of Social Development website, Robertson said. 

The trajectory of Omicron would help the Government judge if further employment resources are needed, he said. 

Experts respond 

Epidemiologists professors Michael Baker and Rod Jackson have urged the Government to go further than the traffic light change and shift the eligibility for booster shots from four to three months, as Australia just announced. 

About 56 per cent of eligible adults have already received their booster. 

But Baker, of Otago University, said changes to our own behaviour, via the traffic light system, would make a large impact in blunting the blow of an Omicron wave. 
 
"Limiting gathering sizes will make a great difference – and working from home should definitely be encouraged." 

Jackson, of the University of Auckland, argued a delay to the start of the school year – as has been called for by others – could help reduce case numbers. 

"That is a major super-spreading setting, and it's not that kids themselves get incredibly sick – it's that they infect their teachers, parents and grandparents," Jackson said. 

"I appreciate that's controversial in terms of disrupting everything, but we have one goal, and one goal only – and that is to flatten the peak. 

"We're not going to stop Omicron, but we can slow it down."