Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand goes through a red light tonight, PM Jacinda Ardern confirms nine cases with variant

January 23, 2022 PM Jacinda Ardern has confirmed that New Zealand will switch to red light setting at midnight tonight.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed that New Zealand will go through a red light 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 as well as a funeral, an amusement park and the Sky Tower in the following days. These events brought together more than 100 people.

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

The government will take a three-step approach to the point where New Zealand will see 1,000 cases a day, Ardern said.

The first step will be the familiar approach to eradication, with contact tracing and testing, including rapid antigen tests. The second stage will be a transition stage. Stage three will see changes to contact tracing, and further details on all three stages will be released at a later date, Ardern said.

Each region will turn red, whether or not that area has a confirmed case of Omicron, and Ardern said she expects the country to stay red for “a few weeks.”

“Evidence from abroad suggests [Omicron] moves really fast,” Ardern said. “Red will make the difference.”

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

“The difference with previous epidemics is that we are now well vaccinated and well prepared,” she said.

Close contacts of cases will be required to self-isolate for 10 days and follow testing requirements which will generally be on day five.

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

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson and Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield arrive for an Omicron press conference.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson and Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield arrive for an Omicron press conference. Photo/Mark Mitchell

There are already more than four and a half million RAT tests in the country and millions more underway, Ardern said.

The government was still sticking to its plan to ease border restrictions by the end of February, but this would be done in a phased manner.

With the red light coming through, Ardern said she and her fiancé Clarke Gayford have decided not to pursue their marriage.

“I have just joined many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like this as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “Such is life. I’m no different to dare say thousands of other New Zealanders.”

Omicron cases

The decision to go red was based on genome sequencing results for several Covid cases with no clear link to the border.

Nine Covid-positive people in Motueka are now confirmed to have the Omicron variant, and Chief Health Officer Ashley Bloomfield said today “we don’t yet know the source of these community cases”.

Nelson’s group attended a wedding in Auckland on January 13, as well as a funeral, an amusement park and the Sky Tower.

They returned to Nelson on January 16, on a shared flight with an Air NZ crew member who also tested positive for Omicron. He then worked on four more flights, all of which are now landmarks. 150 people on these flights have been contacted and these efforts continued this morning.

Health officials are working to figure out how exactly the nine Motukea cases became infected. The group’s level of community transmission was expected to be high, Bloomfield said, and determining the extent of the spread was critical.

Bloomfield said it was very important that the first infected person in Motukea be tested. “We’re really grateful for that,” he said.

There will be people outside of Nelson and Auckland who have traveled to those areas and been encouraged to get tested, he said.

Chief Health Officer Ashley Bloomfield said it was very important that the first infected person at Motukea be tested.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Chief Health Officer Ashley Bloomfield said it was very important that the first infected person at Motukea be tested. Photo/Mark Mitchell

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

“If you are symptomatic, please request a test,” he said. “If you don’t have symptoms, there’s no need to get tested at this stage.”

There are at least 16 cases of Omicron that have been found outside the community after the highly contagious variant passed through border controls.

This includes the cases of Motueka, two Auckland airport workers, an MIQ staff member, two close contacts and another person who spent two days traveling to Palmerston North while potentially infectious after being released from the MIQ.

Red setting

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

Although the lockdowns are not widespread, there could be localized lockdowns at a workplace or school, for example, depending on what was happening during the outbreak.

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

A move to the red light setting will mean more restrictions on gatherings and businesses.  Photo / Sylvie Whinray
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 accommodate up to 100 people, including hospitality, gyms, weddings and tangihanga. Without a pass, reception services must remain contactless and the aforementioned gatherings are limited to 25 people.

Education centers remain open but with additional health measures, including grade four and up, it will be necessary to wear masks.

Tertiary students must study remotely if they do not have a vaccine pass.

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

This decision will be a cruel blow to the hospitality of businesses in Northland, which only turned orange this week.

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

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 gets infected the other can help deliver food and support them, Ardern said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing that the country will move to red light setting.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing that the country will move to red light setting. Photo/Mark Mitchell

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

But he says it’s possible some schools will have to switch to home-based learning if they’re short-staffed because so many teachers have been exposed to Covid.

Children will experience disruption if they, a close contact or someone in their household are sick, but otherwise they will be in school and in the classroom, Hipkins said.

Financial aid

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said today that if businesses followed public health measures they could stay open and the economy would continue to run strong.

“At the red level, it’s not a lockdown,” he said. “Our initial goal is to support workers who cannot work because they have to self-isolate.”

The short-term absence allowance is $359 per worker.

There are other business support programs available and further details were available on the Department of Social Development website, Robertson said.

Omicron’s trajectory would help the government judge whether additional employment resources are needed, he said.

Robertson said they are considering whether it is appropriate to offer employment assistance to those who do not wish to be vaccinated.

covid

panic buying

Long queues at supermarkets have already been spotted across the country

Robertson said the government was working very hard to prevent supermarket shelves from going empty.

“There’s absolutely no need to panic buy…we’re asking people to think about what actions they need if you get sick, but there’s plenty of time for that,” Robertson said.

“Planning and preparing is good, but buying three toilet paper carts is not.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson and Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield arrive for an Omicron press conference.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson and Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield arrive for an Omicron press conference. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Experts answer

Epidemiologist professors Michael Baker and Rod Jackson have urged the government to go further than changing traffic lights and cut eligibility for booster shots from four to three months, as Australia has just announced.

About 56% of eligible adults have already received their booster.

But Baker, of the University of Otago, said changes in our own behavior, via the traffic light system, would have a big impact in blunting the blow of an Omicron wave.

“Limiting the size of gatherings will make a big difference – and working from home should certainly be encouraged.”

University of Otago epidemiologist, Professor Michael Baker.  Photo / Provided
University of Otago epidemiologist, Professor Michael Baker. Photo / Provided

Jackson, of the University of Auckland, argued that a delay in the start of the school year – as others have called for – could help reduce the number of cases.

“It’s a major setting for super-spreading, and it’s not that kids themselves are getting incredibly sick — it’s that they’re infecting their teachers, parents, and grandparents,” Jackson said.

“I understand it’s controversial in terms of disrupting everything, but we have one goal, and one goal only – and that’s to flatten the peak.

“We’re not going to stop Omicron, but we can slow him down.”

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