Omicron: Too early to say if changes needed, says PM


As Cabinet prepares to decide the Covid traffic light levels for the country, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern believes it's too early to say what changes may be needed in response to the Omicron variant.

Ardern said today that authorities could respond very quickly at the border and all travellers were still required to go through the MIQ system.

Officials needed more information before saying whether the move to allow travellers from Australia to self-isolate from mid-January would change.

"We need to be prepared for it either to be possibly more severe, possibly more mild. We just don't know yet," she told The AM Show this morning.

Officials were keeping a close eye on whether more countries need to be added to the high-risk list.

Twenty people were due to return from high-risk regions in the next two months, but Ardern wasn't sure if they fitted the new category to return now.

All cases were treated with absolute caution and anyone who was positive would go into managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Ardern said the doctor in South Africa who was part of identifying the new variant said the patients she had encountered were younger in many cases than what we are used to seeing.

They were also seeing slightly different symptoms for Omicron. They were milder and included fatigue, she said.

She acknowledged that vaccines may also have to be adapted in response to new variants of Covid-19 - including Omicron.

Ardern said internal work has been done on ICU capacity. The bigger issue was beefing up the nurse workforce rather than just the physical space in hospitals.

She said the Government had increased nurses' pay and also made sure there was capacity in MIQ to bring nurses home.

Ardern will reveal New Zealand's traffic light settings this afternoon after Cabinet meets, with the setting to begin this Friday. No area will start at green she has said.

Ardern expected that people would become very familiar with the traffic lights system once we moved into them.

"Ultimately, the thing to remember is if you've got your vaccine pass in Auckland, you'll see things reopen. You'll be able to get out there and enjoy the things you love again," she told Breakfast.

Ardern said officials had ruled out any part of the country moving immediately into the green light setting.

Under the new traffic light system, Ardern gave a big "yes" when asked if people were allowed to have visitors inside their home again.

She said there are still gathering limits, though. Parts of the country who were in red would still have a limit of 25 people inside a home.

A man undergoes a Covid-19 test at a pre-departure area at Sydney International Airport on Sunday...
A man undergoes a Covid-19 test at a pre-departure area at Sydney International Airport on Sunday. Photo: Getty Images

Omicron cases confirmed in Australia

It comes as two cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in Australia last night just days out from New Zealand entering its new traffic light pandemic response system.

Genomic testing confirmed two recent arrivals into Sydney were infected with the new Omicron strain.

The fully vaccinated travellers had arrived from southern Africa on Saturday and tested positive on arrival.

The two confirmed cases were among 14 people who had travelled on Qatar Airways QR908 from Doha. The remaining 12 passengers are undertaking 14 days of hotel quarantine.

The developments are likely to raise fears that the new mutation could soon arrive in New Zealand.

Ardern said last night it was too early to say whether Omicron was vaccine-resistant.

The World Health Organisation was undertaking research "very quickly" to find out how effective vaccines would be against this variant, whether it made people more or less sick and whether it was more infectious.

In a livestream posted to Facebook last night, she reassured followers that there were still a lot of safeguards in place because of the risk of variants. This included border controls, MIQ, testing people coming in at the border and carrying out whole genome sequencing to check which variant people had.

Countries where Omicron was mostly present had been classed as high-risk and the borders had been closed to them, Ardern said.

Only New Zealand citizens travelling from those countries can come in while more research is carried out and they get a better understanding of the impact of this new variant.

The Omicron variant comes as the Government here is racing to plug gaps in guidance about how the new traffic light system will work when it kicks in later this week following complaints by some local authority leaders that current advice was inadequate.

There is confusion about how things like swimming pools, camping grounds and Christmas parades will operate under the new regime.

Auckland has been locked down for more than 100 days. It will move to red, the most restrictive level, when the new Covid-19 Protection Framework starts at 11.59pm on Thursday.

Cabinet will meet today to decide which settings will be designated for other regions. The Prime Minister is expected to announce the decisions this afternoon.

The traffic light system

RED

At red, action is to protect at-risk people and the health system from an unsustainable number of hospital admissions. Scanning will be required, as will masks on flights and public transport, and in taxis, retail and public venues. Public facilities will have a 100-person limit, and retail will be open with capacity limits. Working from home will be encouraged. Education providers will be open with public health measures in place. The vaccine pass will be required at tertiary institutions.  Specified outdoor events will be allowed with capacity limits. If a business, organisation or service does not require proof of vaccination, restrictions apply. Hospitality will be contactless if the business does not require vaccination passes, and gatherings will have limits of 10. Close-contact businesses such as gyms can only operate with vaccination passes.

ORANGE

At orange, there will be increasing community transmission that puts pressure on the health system. The whole health system will focus its resources, but will be able to continue to manage primary care, public health and hospitals. Scanning will be required, as will masks on flights and public transport, and in taxis, retail and public venues. Public facilities and retail will be open with capacity limits and education providers will be open with public health measures in place. If vaccination passes are used, there will be no gathering limits. If they are not used, limits of 50 people will apply. Hospitality businesses not requiring passes will have to operate contactlessly.  Close-contact businesses such as gyms can only operate with vaccination passes.

GREEN

Green is when there are some Covid-19 cases in the community, and sporadic imported cases. Community transmission will be limited and Covid-19 hospital admissions will be at a manageable level. Scanning in will be required, and face masks will be mandatory on flights and encouraged indoors. All businesses, public facilities and education providers will be open, and specified outdoor events will be able to take place. There will be no limits on gathering numbers if vaccination passesare used. If they are not used, limits of 100 people will apply.

 

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