Omicron a 'different foe', PM hopeful long lockdowns unlikely

Claire Trevett, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 20 Jan 2022, 10:42am

Omicron a 'different foe', PM hopeful long lockdowns unlikely

Claire Trevett, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 20 Jan 2022, 10:42am

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has told her MPs that Omicron is a "different foe" and will result in case numbers not seen in New Zealand before - but the variant "is not insurmountable" and long lockdowns should not be needed. 

Speaking to the MPs at an oceanside Labour retreat near New Plymouth this morning, Ardern said New Zealand had the advantage of seeing how Omicron played out in the rest of the world, and had again bought itself some time by keeping it out of the community. 

"We've given ourselves time to start our booster campaign and start vaccinations for children. That's a position other countries aren't in. So every day we have, we know how important it is to prepare." 

Her comments follow confirmation that there are two new Omicron cases in Auckland. 

An Auckland airport worker and a household contact of the MIQ worker with Omicron both also have that variant, genome testing has confirmed. 

The pair had both tested positive yesterday. 

One of the infected people was out in the community on Tuesday this week (January 18). The case visited Ara-Tai Cafe in Auckland's Half Moon Bay between 12.30pm and 2pm. 

Ardern was speaking to MPs ahead of a press conference at about 1pm today at which she will set out whether there will be changes to the current traffic light settings, both for Northland which is still at the most restrictive red setting, and the rest of the country. 

She is also expected to set out some details of the Omicron response plan. 

Omicron was a different challenge to Delta and there would also be other variants, she said. 

"We know we will experience in New Zealand cases at a level we have not experienced before." 

However, she said for the most part vaccinations would protect many and most people would be able to recover at home. 

"We know again the tools that make a difference and it is not insurmountable. 

It is a different foe than what we had before." 

She said that the high vaccination rates, anti-viral drugs, and the traffic lights system were key. "All of that means we can do things differently. It means we don't have to use the widespread lockdowns I know people found so difficult in 2021." 

She said she felt people could enter 2022 feeling resolute and confident. 

Ardern said the combination of vaccinations and the traffic lights system meant the country has just enjoyed its second summer in a row during the pandemic. 

"That was not by accident, it was by design." She said the vaccinations rollout, and development and introduction of the Covid Protection Framework (the traffic light system) had ensured it. 

"It did what we wanted it to do. It meant we did not experience Delta in the same way other countries had. For that I know we are very grateful to everyone who made that plan work." 

Ardern uses the caucus retreat to set out the Government's priorities for the year, and she told MPs those were not all related to Covid health response. 

"For the course of 2022 we know we need to keep the economy humming." 

She said the economy had held up well over Covid-19, and unemployment was low. One focus would be on skills. 

She said free trade agreements were another focus, and revealed she had been involved in talks for the European Union free trade agreement over summer. "Our eye is on the prize with the EU this year. It is an agreement that I know will make a difference for our exporters." 

She said an international travel programme would begin again – for the Government, and ordinary New Zealanders. 

Ardern said the pandemic had also highlighted the need for the health reforms, and they could not afford to be delayed. Climate change would also be a priority "at the centre of the recovery." 

Ardern also touched again on the staple priorities of her governments: child poverty and housing for those most in need. 

Labour MPs arrived at the retreat in good spirits and a range of summer attire: there was the usual smattering of island shirts, jeans, dresses, and jandals to polo shirts. The standout was Kiri Allan's pyjama-esque Huffer short suit. 

In 2021 at the retreat in Nelson, Ardern dubbed it the Year of the Vaccine – and although much of the progress in the rollout happened in the last four months of the year, the year did end with high vaccination rates and the rollout of boosters and children's vaccinations starting. 

In January last year, she said the Government's job was "to get us through this year and to get us through the worst health and economic crisis the world has seen in our lifetime". 

That 2021 retreat was just a few months after Ardern was handed a historic win in the 2020 election: Labour was the first to be handed a one-party majority government since MMP began, a win largely seen as an acknowledgement of Ardern's handling of Covid-19 and the success of the elimination approach. 

However, Labour's polling has been buffeted since then – dropping by more than 10 points as the Covid-free days ended, the Government dealt with the Delta outbreak and Auckland was put into a long three-month lockdown. 

Ardern will be hoping she can win some of that support back this year, with plans to open up the international borders more on the agenda and a highly vaccinated population. However, some of those plans will be delayed by Omicron and other pressures such as the rising cost of living will start to bite. 

Labour has traditionally held its retreat at Brackenridge in Martinborough – but the venue is too small to hold its large 2020 caucus. It has instead been heading to other provinces and electorates which were held by National but were won by Labour in 2020: Nelson and New Plymouth among them. 

Families are welcomed to the retreat, although Ardern's partner Clarke Gayford and daughter Neve did not attend this year. The retreat will wrap up with a dinner for MPs and their families tonight.