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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyFebruary 24, 2022

NZ’s move to phase three explained

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The next and final phase of the government’s response to the omicron outbreak kicks in at 11.59pm tonight (February 24). Here’s what you need to know. 

What’s all this then?

By now you should have your head around this whole phase business (TLDR: it’s separate to the traffic light system and it’s not the same as levels). Last week we shifted to phase two. Now, as Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins has just announced, it’s time to move on up to phase three.

How come? 

Because case numbers are increasing pretty quickly (the last few days went 2,365, 2,846, 3,297) and testing sites and labs are getting overwhelmed, particularly in Auckland. Last week, Jacinda Ardern indicated that a 5,000 daily tally might be the threshold for the move to phase three, but said “we’ll be keeping a watching brief on whether it needs to be sooner”. At today’s briefing the Covid minister, Chris Hipkins, indicated that we could expect more than 5,000 cases today, and 205 hospitalisations – which now become a major focus.

So what changes?

The general vibe continues to move more towards personal responsibility. That means rapid antigen tests, which are self-administered and the results self-reported, are rolled out more widely and become the norm across the country, with PCR testing used sparingly, with a focus on priority populations, such as immunocompromised people.

I thought that had already happened?

In Auckland, the epicentre of the outbreak, as of yesterday RATs became the go-to for anyone seeking a test at community testing centre, with no need to confirm a result with a PCR. But getting one’s hands on a RAT has meant queuing for a long, long time, and there have been reports of testing centres running out. 

Not ideal. Will this change in phase three?

All going to plan, yes. While you won’t be able to pick one up at the local dairy, RATs will be available from pharmacies and GPs, as well as some workplaces, while still being on offer at testing centres. Hipkins said today they would be available more widely at retailers “from March”.

How does contact tracing change?

We shift to a fully “self-serve model”. At phase two cases are already using a “self-investigation tool” that focuses on high-risk exposures; in phase three this shifts to targeting very high-risk exposures, which will narrow the number of contacts identified. These contacts will be automatically notified, or cases can let them know themselves. Contact tracers will focus on “very high-risk locations like hospitals and aged care facilities”, said Hipkins. 

And isolation requirements?

As at phase two, cases have to isolate for 10 days. Household contacts of cases are also required to isolate until the case completes their 10-day period, testing on day three and day 10, or if they develop symptoms. Other close contacts identified (there won’t be many, as detailed above) will simply monitor for symptoms and get tested if any develop. The close contact exemption scheme for critical workers will continue (that means you can go back to work with a negative RAT).

Does this mean I don’t have to scan in any more? What about locations of interest?

Please, continue to scan in with the Covid tracer app. But there will be limited use of push notifications or the bluetooth function of the app, and limited use of locations of interest (which have already dwindled in recent days).

Is there a phase four?

Nope, this is the final frontier.

Keep going!