Challenges loom as the Omicron variety enters New Zealand

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Jo Moir

Jo Moir

Wellington, January 24, 2022

                                                          Jacinda Ardern at her Media Conference on Sunday, January 23, 2022

Less than 72 hours after the Prime Minister announced that the country would move to the Red Traffic Light Setting if Omicron got in the community, the call has been made.

It will be a culture shock for many in the months ahead as Covid finally takes hold.

Despite two years of lockdowns, borders and restrictions, a large chunk of the population still doesn’t know anybody who has ever had Covid and views it as something happening to other countries through the distance of a television screen.

Unprepared despite notice

The fortunate position that New Zealand has been in is about to come to a crushing end, and ministers and health officials are all aware of how unprepared some are for what is going to hit.

That rose-tinted outlook on Covid has resulted in just 56% of those who are eligible for a booster shot having bothered to get one.

It was the arrival of the Delta variant and its higher infection rate that prompted many to go and get vaccinated. The Prime Minister is banking on that same fear of the more transmissible Omicron getting people boosted.

The Red Setting of the Traffic Light System, which has now been split into three phases as Omicron affects more of the community, does not significantly impact what people can and cannot do. The vaccinated can still freely go out for dinner, to the gym, visit friends and family locally or in other regions and send their children to school.

Rapid Antigen Tests

But by the time phases two and three kick in, and daily Covid cases are in the thousands, regular Rapid Antigen Testing will need to be widespread, supply chains will be impacted by staff being home isolated, and for the most part, those with Covid who aren’t seriously ill will be left to fend for themselves at home.

Phase One of the Red setting is no different to life with Delta in the community (although the alert level system was more restrictive than the traffic lights), something that Jacinda Ardern says is deliberate as it is to be implemented when cases are still at a manageable rate (no more than 1000 a day) with PCR testing still used and cases contact traced.

The details around phases two and three will be provided on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

While Kiwis got a taste of the future on Sunday (January 23, 2022), Omicron’s arrival forced Ardern’s hand after she had chosen not to lay it out to New Zealanders on Thursday, despite saying the finalised plan was broadly complete.

It begs the question of whether the government thought it had more time than it has ended up having, given it has not even made it three days without having to call an emergency Cabinet meeting to move the whole country almost immediately into Red.

Ardern says that booster shots will help New Zealand get through the Omicron wave, but many are not even eligible to get them for several weeks or longer.

Booster shots campaign

That is anxiety-inducing for many, and while the Director-General of Health says that he is always looking at international evidence, there are no immediate plans to follow with some countries and reduce the gap between the second dose and booster from four months to three.

A significant government-led campaign around booster shots needs to kick into action, and Ardern simply saying that there is capacity for people to go and get them isn’t sufficient.

That would be much like Delta when the government was slow to set a vaccination target and only did so after pressure went on to name a goal of 90%.

The lesson should be learnt from that and the Ministry of Health, with the support of ministers, needs to start advertising weekend drive-throughs and events and put some incentives behind getting boosted.

If Ardern believes in her own warning, and it is boosters that will slow the spread of Omicron and delay the health system being swamped and hospitals overrun, as seen overseas, then there will only be benefits from throwing money and resources at getting people boosted.

The same goes for rapid antigen tests and N95 masks – both of which will be needed on a large scale in the weeks and months to come – which should be ordered and dispensed to the public as quickly as possible.

Until now, at least, Ardern seemed set on boxing on with the elimination strategy.

Whether that was because the finer details of an Omicron plan were still a work in progress, or she was convinced this would be an outbreak that could be stamped out is not entirely clear.

Tough year ahead

While Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s language shifted to a mitigation approach last year, Ardern has remained more stuck on the elimination page, reluctant to give in to the spread.

It has been Hipkins and Robertson who have been frank about the bleaker year ahead and preparing people to expect a new normal from which they have until now been protected.

Ardern officially joined them on Sunday (for phases and two and three at least) and now the public needs to get on board too.

The border being kept mostly shut has bought the Government time when it comes to preparing for Omicron.

As it came closer each week, Hipkins was blunt about marching on with plans to gradually reopen the border at the end of February because the risk from Kiwis abroad would no longer be relevant in a community outbreak scenario.

Businesses will have a tough time ahead, with supply chains significantly impacted and an inevitably high number of staff who will be either sick with Covid or isolating at home.

Many saw 2021 as a much tougher grind than 2020 because of the uncertainty of what was coming and the race to get vaccinated.

That uncertainty has not gone away – in some cases, it has probably increased. The race to get vaccinated has shifted to boosters and whether this new approach will hold up against whatever variant is coming down the pipeline.

Jo Moir is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. The above article has been published under a Special Agreement.

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