Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says the Government should delay the reopening of New Zealand's international borders next year in order to keep the Omicron variant of Covid-19 out of the community.
It comes as New Zealand’s first Omicron case has been discovered in a Christchurch MIQ facility, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed on Thursday afternoon.
The person arrived in the country on a flight from Germany via Dubai, which landed in Auckland before being transferred to Christchurch.
“All the people in that flight are in two separate hotels in Christchurch," Bloomfield said.
The person with Omicron, who is double vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine, is isolating in a Christchurch Sudima Airport Hotel.
Professor Baker said several factors would be key to mitigating the spread of the new variant, such as keeping MIQ in place and delaying the reopening of the international border.
Baker also shares Bloomfield's view that further "localised" lockdowns should not be ruled out.
"We don't want this variant in New Zealand," he said.
"The big unknown is the risk assessment around this variant. We do need to know how harmful it would be if it was being transmitted in New Zealand," he said, adding "we should try very hard to to keep it out".
He said the country had succeeded in using a cautious approach.
"The big decision for Government now is the border relaxation around January and February next year," Baker said.
He said the border approach needed rethinking.
"I would say at this point in time it would be very prudent to delay the planned reopening from January to February," he said.
He said the decision was better to be made now, given people would already be planning to come back "in large numbers" from the middle of January".
"It would be better to make the decision now, given what we know about this variant.
"We would rapidly have that variant in New Zealand if we did start to reopen our borders as planned."
Baker also said that shortening the interval between the second vaccine and booster shot will add to New Zealand's defence against Omicron.
"We have to assume now that this variant will get into New Zealand at some point."
He said evidence from overseas is that, "we really need that third booster to increase out level of protection of this variant".
"This is just another, even better reason to get that booster," he said, adding Australia has switched to five months and the UK to three.
"Baker said shortening the time between the second and third dose was prudent given the "rising risk of this variant getting established in New Zealand".
Bloomfield said on Thursday that ministers will meet on Friday to discuss whether to bring forward the booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.