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A lot of the Covid response is now up to you. (Image: Tina Tiller)
A lot of the Covid response is now up to you. (Image: Tina Tiller)

The BulletinFebruary 28, 2022

The new world of omicron

A lot of the Covid response is now up to you. (Image: Tina Tiller)
A lot of the Covid response is now up to you. (Image: Tina Tiller)

10 things that explain New Zealand’s new approach to Covid-19, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

A new world. New Zealand’s first case of Covid-19 was detected exactly two years ago. The country’s approach to the pandemic has shifted radically since then, but few changes have been as sudden and significant as those of the past week. More significant changes could be just around the corner. After two years of scanning, contact tracing and isolating, New Zealanders now face a do-it-yourself approach to omicron. Late last week, the director-general of health and Covid-19 minister unveiled the new approach. Here are 10 things you should know.

Only household contacts need to isolate. One of the biggest changes of phase three of the omicron response has been doing away with close and casual contacts. There are now only two groups that matter: confirmed Covid cases and the households who need to isolate alongside them. “With omicron as with prior variants of the virus, household contacts are the most likely by far to become infected as secondary cases. That’s why in this phase we are focusing just on household contacts isolating,” director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said last week.

There are now legal requirements, and there’s what you should do. Friends, coworkers and others who spend time with a case can still isolate as well, but they won’t be legally required to. As Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins said, New Zealanders now need to make up their own minds. “We are asking New Zealanders to accept a much greater degree of personal responsibility for what they do,” he said. Without a legal requirement to isolate, it’ll be a tougher discussion to have with employers.

Students should keep going to class, despite cases. Unless a student is exposed to someone in their household with Covid-19, they are expected to keep going to class. Even if the person sitting beside them tests positive. After some reports of schools coding absences as unjustified for students missing class because of fears they are a contact, Hipkins, as education minister, also sent a bit of a warning to schools: “If you are simply a broader contact of someone who might have Covid-19, you are not required to isolate. But parents, I am sure, will make judgements about that. I know schools will make pragmatic decisions about, for example, how they code student absences.”

Many people will only see rapid tests from now on. After two years of what a colleague described as the “old nose probe” being central to the country’s testing system, PCR tests are now being reserved for certain people. Bloomfield explains: “PCR testing will be used for people who are unwell or more susceptible, for example, those in hospital, people who are immunocompromised, pregnant people, and others for whom it is very important in terms of clinical management to have a specific diagnosis.” RATs do still require self-administered nose probing.

RATs won’t always be free after all. At the midpoint of last week the country was down to one million rapid tests, but after some large deliveries, nearly 20 million should be on hand this coming week. That’s good because RATs will not only be the main test from now, they are also available for purchase at pharmacies and supermarkets. The Spinoff found a box of five for sale at an Auckland Countdown for $46.95. In January, the prime minister said RATs would always be “free for people who need them”. Without any fanfare, that description now only applies to people with symptoms who can queue at testing centres. For those who want to undertake surveillance tests or can’t wait hours for a test, be prepared to pay. There are no plans for free surveillance tests, like in Europe.

How much should a RAT cost? One of the reasons the prime minister promised the tests would remain free was because of stories of price gouging in Australia. With the decision now to leave it up to the free market, Hipkins said no price controls will be put in place, but he expects retailers will continue to be “very responsible”. According to Bloomfield, you should pay between $8 and $10 per test.

Contact tracing is out. There will still be some tracing of cases who go to high-risk locations like hospitals and aged care facilities, but most cases won’t get a call from a contact tracer anymore. If you’d like to warn your contacts that you got infected, that’s your own choice.

Keep scanning, or don’t. “It is still helpful to scan,” said Bloomfield, but notifying your non-household contacts is now a personal responsibility. It wasn’t a full defence of scanning. University of Auckland research fellow Andrew Chen told Stuff that it’s important to stay in the habit of scanning, so it might be worth keeping it up. Either way, vaccine passes and ubiquitous QR codes could be an endangered species now.

The government doesn’t want to talk about daily cases anymore. “Hospitalisations now become a major focus and daily case numbers will become a less important metric from this point onwards,” said Hipkins.

Does MIQ still make sense? For most of the last two years, managed isolation and strict border controls has been described by the government as the country’s main line of defence. With nearly 15,000 daily cases in the community and a dozen or so at the border, it’s not so clear what MIQ is defending. Facing questions, Hipkins seemed reluctant to throw his full support behind MIQ, which is noteworthy:

“We are days away from the border reopening (editor’s note: it opened today). For Australia, and then shortly thereafter followed by the rest of the world. We are reviewing the self- isolation requirements for people coming into the country. I have no announcement on that at the moment, we are still being advised about whether people should still need to self-isolate on arrival in New Zealand. We expect to get that advice in the next week or two,” he said. The entire self-isolation requirement could be gone next month, with MIQ not far behind it.

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