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The omicron variant will challenge New Zealand’s covid approach. (Angus Dreaver/RNZ)
The omicron variant will challenge New Zealand’s covid approach. (Angus Dreaver/RNZ)

The BulletinJanuary 20, 2022

Preparing for omicron

The omicron variant will challenge New Zealand’s covid approach. (Angus Dreaver/RNZ)
The omicron variant will challenge New Zealand’s covid approach. (Angus Dreaver/RNZ)

Border quarantine is filling with cases and supermarkets are stockpiling goods as the government readies a plan to face the new variant, Justin Giovannetti writes.

Two months after omicron was first detected in South Africa, cabinet is finalising a plan to respond. New Zealand’s supermarkets and industries have not waited for direction from the top, with RNZ reporting that stockpiling is underway after crisis planning across the country’s businesses. Evidence from overseas has shown that omicron, one of the most transmissible viruses ever detected, can still infect people who are double-vaccinated and can evade cloth masks. That’s played havoc on entire economies with workers forced into isolation. In response, the US government cut its isolation period to five days for the infected. New Zealand businesses need only look to Australia, where ABC has reported bare shelves at Countdown and other stores as workers and truck drivers have had to stay home due to surging infection rates.

Not sure about omicron? Stuff’s Keith Lynch has written an explainer about the variant. One helpful reminder: While the vaccines are less effective at preventing symptomatic infection, they hold up very well at stopping serious illness.

The prime minister started the week getting a booster shot, the country’s Covid-19 approach is likely to get a booster today. Cabinet met yesterday at the Labour caucus retreat and omicron was on the agenda. Armed with new advice from the ministry of health, Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins have promised changes to the country’s pandemic strategy. As the NZ Herald writes about the meeting, the traffic light system is likely to undergo some tweaks. Asked yesterday if any part of New Zealand will enter the green light setting, Hipkins hesitated before saying he’d need to discuss the system with cabinet. The hesitation spoke volumes about a system that is as old as omicron itself. Ardern has warned that community spread of the variant will mean a national move to red. That community spread is expected soon.

A health document leaked to Māori television highlights some of the challenges facing the country. As the broadcaster reports, the document shows that the government is worried about panicked buying of food, masks and medication when omicron arrives. Only one-third of the country’s ICU beds are currently available, according to the report, and the lack of previous infection in New Zealand could mean that a local wave of omicron could be worse than that in Europe and the US. The cornerstone of New Zealand’s response so far has been to cut the interval for booster shots. Along with possible changes to the traffic light system, 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.

Border facilities are still tasked with trying to keep omicron out. More cases have been detected in MIQ over the past 21 days than within New Zealand itself, a sign of the unprecedented number of travellers carrying omicron on arrival. That’s despite pre-departure tests being required before getting on a plane to New Zealand. Speaking to media yesterday, Hipkins said the border system is under too much strain and new bookings have been put on pause. As Stuff reports, a planned reopening of the border next month hasn’t been cancelled yet. New Zealanders overseas have challenged the move and a judicial review of the entire MIQ system has been put off to February, according to RNZ. Epidemiologists have backed the decision to pinch off the border, calling it a necessary sacrifice as people queue for booster shots.

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