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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand will move to Red on the Covid-19 traffic light system when the highly transmissible variant Omicron gets into the community, but there won't be lockdowns.
Speaking from New Plymouth at the Labour Party caucus retreat this afternoon, Ardern also announced that Northland would join the rest of New Zealand on Orange from midnight tonight.
"Vaccination rates have continued to increase in Northland and are now at 89 percent first dose. The easing of the Auckland boundary over summer did not drive an increase in cases so we believe it is safe for Northland to join the rest of the country at orange."
Ardern said this is because of exceptional vaccination rates, public health teams continuing to stamp out cases, and the Covid protection framework working as expected. This left New Zealand in one of the best positions in the world to fight Omicron.
"Omicron is more transmissible, that is going to make it harder to keep it out, but it will also make it more challenging to control once it arrives."
Earlier today, Ardern described the Omicron strain as "a different foe"
"We know ... that Omicron is in every corner of the world at the moment. And we also know that there will be other variants. And we know that we will experience in New Zealand cases at a level that we haven't experienced before."
She told media this afternoon the Government knew from other countries that it could take as little as 14 days for Omicron cases to grow from the hundreds into the thousands and the whole of New Zealand will move to Red on the traffic light system within 24 to 48 hours once the variant enters the community.
"We won't be able to stop Omicron entering the community, but we can use tools to try and slow it down. We need to be on guard, and ready.
"New Zealand has done an incredible job in reducing [Covid variant] Delta case numbers, especially in light of the Auckland boundary lifting last month ... by staying at Orange we will be able to hold onto these gains while we continue to make preparations for Omicron.
"When we have evidence of Omicron transmitting in the community we won't use lockdowns, instead the whole country will move into Red.
"It is important to remember that red does not mean lockdowns, or regional boundaries, and business remains open."
The Prime Minister said that, as before, "when Covid changes, we change".
"The Red setting allows businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but includes mask wearing and gathering restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus and keep pressure off our health system.
"For the most part, people will be well enough to stay at home with whanau. So think about what you'd need to stay home for that period."
Omicron for most people would be a manageable illness, but not for everyone, she said, and New Zealand would continue to work hard to keep cases as low as possible.
Ardern said people could also vaccinate to protect against the virus, with 5-11 year olds able to be vaccinated and boosters protecting against severity of the illness.
Evidence showed the efficacy of booster doses, she said, in protecting against the variant, and they would be important for reducing the spread when Omicron was in the community.
"Not many countries have had a chance to roll out a booster before Omicron hits, we have, and we are. It's an opportunity we need everyone to take up."
Getting prepared and testing
The Prime Minister said every day without community spread is a day New Zealanders can use to prepare, and everyone needs to think about how they can do this.
She said that, as before, people who were close contacts of cases would need to isolate.
"The Government is working to provide the healthcare and social services as needed, but most people will be able to be cared for at home."
The Government was also doing work to bring in more frequent testing in health settings as is seen in countries overseas, she said.
"We have capacity to undertake 40,000 tests a day without putting strain our system. We know that with wider spread, this system will need to change though."
Several principles for testing in the future have been identified. They will be focused on symptomatic people, vulnerable people, essential workers and close contacts. Testing will be free and available locally.
Rapid antigen tests will also be available more widely and would be useful when case numbers of Covid-19 are high, Ardern said.
"Currently we have 4.6 million rapid antigen tests in the country and tens of millions of rapid antigen tests on order."
She clarified that rapid antigen tests would also be available to the community for free, alongside PCR tests.
Families should think about what they might need at home if they need to isolate, and businesses should think about how they can support people to get boosters.
"It is difficult to model. We know enough to know though that boosters are really important, and making sure we move quickly is really important."
Omicron fears for Palmerston North
Today's announcement comes as there are fears that Omicron has spread to Palmerston North. There are 39 Covid-19 cases in the community today, the Ministry of Health said, and 46 new cases detected at the border.
There is one possible Omicron case in Palmerston North, the ministry said. This case was in a managed isolation and quarantine facility in Christchurch and tested negative on day 9, before being released on January 16, after returning a negative test result on five occasions throughout their stay.
Meanwhile, genome sequencing today confirmed that an Auckland Airport worker who tested positive for Covid-19 has the Omicron variant of the virus.
It comes as a household contact of an MIQ worker with Omicron was also confirmed to have the variant.
No border change
On plans for reopening the border, Ardern said no discussions have been had yet about changing the plans and at this point the status quo remains.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it's important to note that the pause is for bookings in March and April - not January and February.
He said that does not suggest there will be no MIQ bookings for March and April, just that they are not being made yet.
- RNZ and NZ Herald