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Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins announced new measures to deal with omicron at a Beehive press conference. (Photo: Getty Images)
Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins announced new measures to deal with omicron at a Beehive press conference. (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyDecember 21, 2021

The omicron overhaul: Booster and border rules revealed in face of new menace

Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins announced new measures to deal with omicron at a Beehive press conference. (Photo: Getty Images)
Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins announced new measures to deal with omicron at a Beehive press conference. (Photo: Getty Images)

The vaccine booster gap shrinks and the border loosening is halted, while focus on equity in the rollout for under-12s stops short of a specific prioritisation of Māori. Toby Manhire assesses the new steps.

One of the symptoms of the Covid pandemic is deja vu. On a day that would otherwise have been cause for great optimism, with the new daily case count at 28, the lowest for 77 days, Covid minister Chris Hipkins announced a range of measures to counter a frighteningly new variant of the virus, omicron. Once again, there are new precautions. Once again, the border wall is inching upwards.

“Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls,” Hipkins said at a parliament news conference. “We have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary.” While New Zealand had the advantage of high vaccination rates among people 12 and over, as well as facing the new threat in the summer months, more needed to be done. “Parts of the world are going back into lockdown and experiencing major disruption, and with these extra steps we aim to keep omicron at bay to ensure New Zealanders get the break they deserve and businesses can remain open,” he said.

Booster gap reduced

While the new strain does not appear to produce more severe disease, the evidence is clear on two other, linked factors: it is incredibly contagious and it is adept at slipping the grasp of vaccines. Earlier today the CDC, the US public health agency, estimated that 73% of new Covid infections across the last week were omicron, a staggering increase from 13% the week prior. 

Initial studies indicate, however, that a booster shot, topping up the protection of the initial two doses, is a powerful defence. So that was the top of the list announced by Hipkins today: a reduction of the gap between dose two and the booster from six to four months. That will kick in from January. Among those already double-dosed, four in five will be eligible for a booster by the end of February. 

Cabinet has also decided that the booster shot will become required among workers for whom vaccination is already mandatory. This will apply to border and health workers as of the end of January – “or not later six months after their second dose for those who were only recently vaccinated” – and to all others from March 1. 

Border loosening suspended, MIQ stays lengthened

Hipkins also had what he acknowledged would “not be welcome news” for many New Zealanders overseas, or those hoping to welcome them home. As the first step in the “medium-risk pathway” announced last month, home isolation was to begin to become the norm from January 17, when vaccinated New Zealanders travelling from Australia were to be permitted to skip MIQ and instead stay at home for seven days. That will now be kicked out until at least the end of February. “There’s no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans, but it’s important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans,” said Hipkins. Asked what it would mean to those who had booked flights from Australia based on the earlier plans, he said: “We’ll be working closely with the airlines to make sure we can align release of MIQ vouchers with flight availability.”

A further “temporary change” will see the current seven-day MIQ stretch, which allows for the final three days at home, suspended, meaning the full 10 days will need to be spent by arrivals in a hotel facility. That will place increased pressure on the spaces available in the system. 

Other changes include a reduction in the pre-departure window for a negative test from 72 to 48 hours prior to departure, while everyone who travels on an international flight at the same time as a positive case will be treated as a close contact.

Are lockdowns back on the cards?

Senior ministers have been careful not to rule out the possibility that lockdowns could resume in extreme circumstances. Hipkins held that line today, saying they were hopeful the traffic light system was fit for purpose in the face of omicron. If and when it seeps into the community, he said, the local area would immediately move to the red setting – if it’s not there already.

“It is not our intention to move to lockdowns unless absolutely necessary in the event of a widespread outbreak where our health system comes under considerable strain – and even then the strong preference is for the lockdown to be highly targeted,” said Hipkins.

Michael Plank, principal investigator for Te Pūnaha Matatini, welcomed the changes, but said the traffic light system was unlikely to stop a serious outbreak if omicron were to escape into the community. “It’s unlikely [the red light] would be sufficient to prevent rapid spread of the variant if community transmission became established,” he said. “Rolling out booster doses as quickly as possible is therefore essential to minimising the risk that omicron overwhelms our healthcare system.”

The vaccine rollout for children

Following Medsafe’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11, cabinet has signed off its introduction. The rollout will begin on January 17 next year. The decision was not prompted by omicron, but the new strain certainly makes its necessity greater. 

“There are 476,000 children between ages 5-11 who will become eligible to get their first dose from this date, and their second dose at least eight weeks later,” said Hipkins. “As we have seen to date, the virus can be unpredictable. While Covid-19 generally has milder effects in children, with symptoms similar to a cold, some children become severely ill and require hospitalisation.”

In the recent delta outbreak, one of every four people hospitalised has been 11 or under.   

The rollout will include working with iwi, DHBs, hauora providers and community groups. It will not at this stage extend to school-based immunisation programmes but schools may be used as community vaccination sites.  

“The government is strongly encouraging parents to have their children vaccinated against Covid-19, but I want to be clear that this is a choice for parents,” said Hipkins. There was “no intention of making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for anyone in this age group”.

The equity question 

An urgent inquiry by the Waitangi Tribunal delivered this morning a damning verdict on the government vaccine rollout for Māori. Haumaru: The Covid-19 Priority Report found that the cabinet decision to reject advice from officials to adopt an age adjustment for Māori in the vaccine rollout breached the Treaty of Waitangi principles of active protection and equity.

Several experts have called for the failure to prioritise Māori in the initial strategy to be remedied in the rollout for young people. “An equity focus with approaches that lower barriers and build trust for people, along with the appropriate prioritisation for the vaccination rollout, will be critical moving forward,” said Dianne Sika-Paotonu, an immunologist based at the University of Otago Wellington, ahead of the press conference. “Leaving any of our most vulnerable behind and unprotected, given the adverse health impact already seen for vulnerable groups in Aotearoa New Zealand, will have long-term consequences.”

The plan outlined today stopped short of any prioritisation for Māori in either the paediatric or booster rollouts. There had been lessons learned from the experience so far and there would be substantial resource provided to hauora and community organisations, but there was no need to specifically prioritise Māori owing to supply, said Hipkins.

“We are fortunate that we will have enough supply to be able to start everybody at the same time.” He added: “Learning from our experience with the adult rollout, we need to make sure we are devoting specific, dedicated resource to reaching into those harder-to-reach communities – particularly some of our more remote communities, and many Māori live in those more remote communities – earlier on in the piece, rather than later on.”

Paediatrician Dr Danny Delore is among the experts who has called for prioritisation for Māori. Speaking alongside Hipkins at the press conference, he said the issue was “not so much the timing, because there is plenty of vaccine available, but where the resource goes to … There are a lot of Māori organisations who are working with the government now on what role they will play in the paediatric rollout. I can’t speak for those groups, but I’m sure as the weeks go by we’ll find out more about what the government’s commitment is.”

Asked directly about the Waitangi Tribunal findings and the criticisms that the government had failed to take the advice of experts on equity, Hipkins said: “I want to take the opportunity to study that report and I have not had the opportunity to do so yet.” He added: “There are always things you look back on and think, ‘I wish I had better choices when we made those decisions’. We made them in the context of a very limited vaccination supply early on. We don’t have that now, so we’re able to make different choices. I’m absolutely confident in the choices we’re making around this next vaccination rollout that some of those equity issues that we encountered in the first part of our vaccination rollout we can avoid this time around.” 

Buying time 

The overall ambition is buying time. In two months, the thinking goes, a clearer picture of the omicron peril will have emerged. In the meantime, the foot is going down on the hose. While it remains likely that the strain will trickle in somewhere, its chances are reduced. And based on what we know already about omicron, New Zealand as a whole will be much better prepared for it by the end of February. 

Then, “when we revisit the phased border reopening, around three million more Kiwis will be eligible for the booster shots and the rollout to 5-11 year-olds will be well under way”, said Hipkins. 

The new measures will inevitably spark a fresh chorus of demands for certainty. A glance at just about any foreign news website makes it very obvious that the currency of certainty has crashed irreparably around the world. Demanding certainty in a situation like this is about as smart as saying you’re certain you’ll be getting from Kaitaia to Bluff without deviating from State Highway 1, despite the storms, the wildfires and the logjams. It is absurd to demand certainty; what we can reasonably demand is clarity.

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