National leader Chris Luxon has accused the government of taking a month off instead of preparing New Zealand for the arrival of omicron, which has left them “scrambling”.
In a statement ahead of a briefing to media in Nelson this afternoon, Luxon said, “When delta hit last August, they developed a response on the fly and now history is repeating itself.”
He said the government had been slow on boosters and vaccines for five to 11-year-olds, was slow again on rapid antigen tests (RATs). “The PM revealed that New Zealand has only 4.6 million rapid tests in the country right now. That’s less than one per person. That is a stunning indictment on the government’s lazy lack of planning,” said Luxon.
“The government has done little other than to make them available for the unvaccinated and for some selected employers. To make matters worse, the prime minister still can’t outline how they will be used, when they will be available, and what isolation rules will be in place. She even thinks our current contact tracing system will work against omicron.”
New Zealand deserved better, Luxon said.
Act leader David Seymour echoed the sentiment in a statement of his own, saying, “Back from a long holiday, the government has finally fronted about the imminent arrival of omicron – only to admit what we suspected all along, there is no plan.”
Hospitality industry groups have welcomed Northland’s move to the orange setting of the Covid-19 Protection Framework but have expressed concerns about the newly revealed plans for how omicron will be dealt with.
Earlier today, the prime minister said that when the new Covid variant enters the community beyond border-related cases, the entire country will go into red within 24-48 hours.
“Any move to the red traffic light still presents restrictions on trading and the impact of this has been felt by our businesses who are recovering from two years of restricted trading,” said Marisa Bidois, CEO of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, in a statement, expressing particular concern about the notice period.
Unlike during the alert level phase, no further financial support is being offered to hospitality businesses under the Covid-19 Protection Framework (traffic light system). “We know from the omicron outbreak in other countries that the spread of this variant has caused a lot of uncertainty for businesses who are closing because of staff shortages as a result of exposure. We believe that businesses will need financial support to work through this new variant,” said Bidois.
Chief executive of Hospitality NZ Julie White, meanwhile, was happy with the warning time there would be before a move to red, but raised concerns about the lack of rapid antigen test kits (RATs) currently on hand. In this afternoon’s announcement, Jacinda Ardern said RATs would be available more widely, and be free.
“I know many more are on order, but there is a world-wide shortage, and what we’ve seen overseas is that they are crucial to keeping the workforce going, particularly front-facing staff, not just in hospitality but across most industries and through the supply chain,” said White in a statement.
“Ensuring businesses have a plentiful supply will be crucial to keep the economy ticking over.”
MediaWorks’ Today FM has nabbed another big name in journalist and former TV3 newsreader Carol Hirschfeld, who is coming on board as executive producer of Tova O’Brien’s new radio show.
Currently the head of video/audio and content partnerships at Stuff, in a press release Hirschfeld said she was thrilled to work with the Today FM team and O’Brien, whom she described as an “exceptionally talented and dynamic journalist”.
“Her interviewing and storytelling reflect her natural intelligence, courage and wit. Spending the morning with Tova will be something totally fresh for Aotearoa. She’ll connect New Zealanders to the big issues and she’ll also send them into the day feeling good. We can’t wait to get the show on the road!” said Hirschfeld.
O’Brien is in the middle of legal action after taking her former employer, TV3 owner Discovery NZ, to the Employment Relations Authority over a three-month restraint of trade clause in her contract that stops her from working for a competitor – an attempt that, if Discovery succeeds, could set a “troubling” precedent, argues Duncan Greive.
Earlier today, Stuff reported O’Brien was “devastated” by having to take legal action and Discovery’s enforcement of the contractual clause amounted to “bullying”, according to her lawyer’s closing submissions to the authority.
Discovery’s lawyer’s submissions are expected later today.
Hirschfeld was the head of content at Radio New Zealand before joining Stuff and had spent several years as head of programming and production at Māori Television. For more than a decade she was a presenter and producer at TV3.
While the Tova breakfast show will be broadcast 6.30am to 9am each weekday, the “launch of Today FM and Tova is yet to be determined”, said MediaWorks.
Northland will join rest of country in orange at 11.59pm tonight, the prime minister has announced. There will be no changes to other regions.
Speaking at a press conference at the Labour caucus retreat in Ōakura, Jacinda Ardern said that when omicron arrived in the community beyond border-related cases, the whole country would move into the red setting within 24-48 hours – but there would be no lockdowns. “We know from other countries that omicron can take as little as 14 days to grow from the hundreds into the thousands across the country,” she said.
She urged everyone to prepare for the possibility that they or a family member may test positive for omicron and be required to self-isolate for a period of time. Ardern said the government was working on bringing in more frequent testing, which would focus on symptomatic people, essential workers and close contacts. She also said rapid antigen tests would be more widely available, and free.
39 new community cases; possible omicron case in Palmerston North
The Ministry of Health has announced there are 39 new community cases of Covid-19 today, and 46 have been detected at the border.
There is also a potential border-related case of Covid-19 in the community in Palmerston North, the Ministry of Health has announced.
This case was in a MIQ facility in Christchurch and tested negative on day nine, before being released on January 16 (Sunday), after returning a negative test result on five occasions throughout their stay.
The case became symptomatic yesterday and got tested. They returned a positive Covid-19 test result yesterday evening.
Urgent whole genome sequencing is under way but as this case was staying at a MIQ facility at the same time as known omicron cases, “as a prudent measure it is being treated as an omicron case”, said the ministry. Investigations are under way to determine the source of infection, including possible in-facility transmission.
The case is considered to have been infectious from January 17 (Monday) and there are exposure events associated with their movements, including an early childhood centre. Initial locations of interest associated with the individual have been published this morning and more will be added as they are identified.
The case, who has had two doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, is now isolating at home with their family.
Second household contact of omicron-infected MIQ worker tests positive
A second household contact of the omicron-infected MIQ worker has tested positive for Covid-19 today. Whole genome sequencing is under way but it’s presumed this is also the omicron variant.
Cafe contacts of omicron case sought
Tracking down people who were at the Ara-Tai Café in Half Moon Bay at the same time as the omicron-infected airport worker is public health’s highest priority, said the ministry, adding that the location is considered high risk.
As of this morning, a total of 39 contacts have been identified in relation to the worker, and 13 have returned negative test results so far.
A total of 88 contacts have been identified in relation to the MIQ worker as of this morning, with 84 returning negative test results and two positive results (both household contacts).
46 new border cases today; 440 omicron since December 1
There are 46 new cases of Covid-19 at the border today. The total number of omicron cases detected at the border since December 1 is now 440.
Community cases spread across Auckland, Rotorua and Hawke’s Bay
Twenty-one of today’s 39 new community cases are in Auckland, with 14 in the Rotorua district. Nine of those in Rotorua are linked to previous cases, with the remainder still being investigated.
There are three new cases in Hawke’s Bay, one of whom was announced yesterday and is being formally added to the tally today. Two of the cases are linked to previously reported cases, and investigations are under way to identify a link for the third, who is believed to have contracted Covid-19 outside of the region, said the ministry.
There are now six active cases in the Hawke’s Bay.
Watch the prime minister’s press conference below:
A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules has departed Auckland for Tonga carrying aid supplies to help the island nation in the wake of Saturday’s devastating eruption and tsunami, the government has announced.
No planes have been able to land in Tonga since the disaster due to volcanic ash on the runway at Nuku’alofa’s airport, which was cleared this morning.
“The aircraft is carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment,” foreign affairs minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement.
The flight is due to arrive in Tonga at about 4pm New Zealand time. “The delivery of supplies will be contactless and the aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” defence minister Peeni Henare said in the statement.
Meanwhile, the offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington, carrying hydrographic and dive personnel as well as a Seasprite helicopter to assist with supply delivery, is expected to arrive in Tonga later today. “The Wellington’s first task will be to check shipping channels and wharf approaches to Tonga’s port to ensure vessels can go alongside, and check the structural integrity of the wharf,” Henare said.
Another vessel, the HMNZS Aotearoa, which has bulk water supplies on board, is expected to arrive in Tonga tomorrow. “Water is among the highest priorities for Tonga, and the Aotearoa can carry 250,000 litres, and produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant,” Mahuta said.
A third vessel, the HMNZS Canterbury, which has two NH90 helicopters on board, is bound for Tonga on Saturday. “We are talking to Tonga about what more they need from us and we can assure them of our ongoing support,” Mahuta said.
She said high vaccination rates, anti-viral drugs and the traffic light system were key in getting on top of omicron. “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.”
Held this year at the Bungalow Coastal Retreat in Ōakura, near New Plymouth, the caucus retreat is a kind of “away day” for Labour MPs, with cheese scones and summery outfits (including, according to Trevett, a “standout” pyjama-esque Huffer short suit worn by Kiri Allan) the order of the day. It’s a chance for the PM to set out the government’s priorities for the year and in addition to the Covid-19 health response, Ardern told her MPs this morning, the economy would be a focus, as would free-trade agreements. The pandemic had underlined the importance of the upcoming health reforms, and climate change would be a priority, she said.
Ardern will be making an announcement on the traffic light system and the omicron response at 1.15pm.
Medicinal cannabis companies Puro and Helius Therapeutics have signed a landmark multi-million-dollar supply deal that is set to give the local sunrise industry a pathway toward international export success.
Over the next five years, Marlborough-based cultivator Puro will supply more than 10 tonnes of organic medicinal cannabis to Auckland-based manufacturer Helius Therapeutics – the equivalent of about five shipping containers of dried cannabis flower. The partnership is the biggest local deal to date, the pair have claimed, and was a “massive win” for the wider industry, said Puro managing director Tim Aldridge in a statement.
“It is significant in its size and scale, and in what it signals for the future. It’s the start of a long-term commercial partnership between Helius and Puro, where we’ll work together to develop the local industry, establishing pathways for an exciting new export industry for New Zealand,” he said.
Helius Therapeutics chief executive Carmen Doran said the deal would enable the company to focus on providing unfamiliar New Zealanders with good-quality medicines and on selling into a global market anticipated to be worth more than $60 billion in three years.
“This supply agreement reflects just how far our industry has come in a few short years and gives Helius the necessary scale to take premium Kiwi-grown and made products to the world,” she said.
A New Zealand Defence Force aircraft carrying essential supplies is expected to leave for Tonga today as the kingdom’s international airport reopens, reports RNZ.
It was confirmed late last night that the Fua’amotu International Airport’s runway had been cleared of ash from Saturday’s volcanic eruption, which had prevented planes from landing. Minister of defence Peeni Henare said a C-130 Hercules is expected to depart today after a few things are confirmed with the Tongan government.
“Without a doubt water and food is the thing the Tongan government is telling us that they need the most. What we know, though, is once that airport is open we can make flights regularly so we’ll be able to send more and more aid over the coming days,” Henare said.
The aircraft could make as many as two trips a day but “we’ll be looking to do it as regularly as possible and as regularly as needed, of course keeping our people safe too”, he said.
It follows two Orion reconnaissance flights earlier this week, while two Royal New Zealand Navy ships departed for Tonga on Tuesday carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies and equipment to help with delivery and surveillance. They are due to arrive tomorrow.
The minister said a vessel to help repair communication lines is on its way as well. “The sooner that ship can get there, the better.”
The Ministry of Health confirmed late last night that an Auckland airport worker who tested positive for Covid-19 yesterday has the omicron variant, according to whole genome sequencing.
One location of interest has been published in connection with the case: the Ara-Tai Café in Half Moon Bay on Tuesday, January 18. Anyone seated inside between 12.30pm and 2pm is considered a close contact and must isolate and get tested immediately, as well as on day five after exposure. Anyone seated outside during that period is a casual contact and should monitor for symptoms, and isolate and get tested immediately if any develop.
Further locations may be added.
The worker was double vaccinated and had had a booster dose. Their household contact has returned an initial negative test result.
Speaking to Morning Report, epidemiologist Michael Bakers said, “Vaccination and a booster does provide some protection against infection and infecting others, but this is an indication of just how tough it will be to keep omicron out.”
Baker is calling for a temporary reduction of numbers of people coming into the country. Since December 1, 370 omicron cases have been detected at the border.
The ministry also said last night that whole genome sequencing had confirmed the household contact of the MIQ worker reported as an omicron case on Sunday also has the more infectious variant. As of yesterday’s 1pm update, two other household contacts of the case were symptomatic but had tested negative. There was also a symptomatic but negative-testing workmate. Seventy-nine of 84 contacts had so far tested negative, with the one household contact positive, and four contacts who shared two bus journeys with the case yet to be reached.
As reported in this morning’s Bulletin, the prime minister will announce later today any changes to the country’s traffic light settings and potential tweaks to the government’s broader Covid-19 response. “I’ll be keeping an eye today on whether the government announces stricter mask rules, a reinforced testing programme and a proposal to protect the country’s health system when the variant arrives,” wrote Justin Giovannetti.
On Morning Report, Baker said in light of the threat of omicron, there needed to be changes to the traffic light system, which was designed for taking on the delta variant. “We’ve got to shift more to elements of the alert level system, with getting people to work from home, minimising indoor gatherings, thinking about the safety of indoor environments and thinking about ventilation and mask use,” he said.