Omicron outbreak would see NZ go to Red in 24-48 hours - PM

If there is evidence of Omicron community transmission, the whole of New Zealand will move into the traffic light setting Red within 24-48 hours, Jacinda Ardern said today.

"We have cases knocking at our door," she said in reference to the high number of Omicron cases at the border, "we need to use every day to prepare".

The Prime Minister had already indicated the country would move to Red should Omicron break out in the community, instead of using lockdowns or regional boundaries.

Ardern said New Zealand needed to increase the rate of people who had received their booster shot before Omicron hits.

"Get boosted and be prepared," Ardern said.

"We've signalled our intention was that the end of February was to see changes at our border. No one should be waiting for border changes to go out and get boosted. They should go out and get it now."

She also announced on Thursday Northland would move from Red to Orange tonight, while the rest of the country would stay at Orange "as the Government prepares for Omicron to enter the community".

Rules for the Covid-19 traffic light system explained

“When we have evidence of Omicron transmitting in the community we won’t use lockdowns, instead the whole country will move into Red within 24-to-48 hours," Ardern said.

“We know from other countries it can take as little as 14 days for Omicron cases to grow from the hundreds into the thousands.

"We will be moving into it quickly because Omicron moves so quickly. If you wait for your health system to be pressured, that's too late."

"The Red setting allows businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but includes mask wearing and gathering restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus and keep pressure off our health system."

She said the most important action New Zealanders could do to prepare for Omicron was to get their booster dose.

“International evidence shows that booster doses provide good protection against Omicron, and by achieving high levels of booster protection we will be able to reduce the spread and severity of Omicron when it arrives."

“Boosters also reduce the severity of Omicron and means most people who catch the virus can safely get better at home, rather than needing hospital-level care."

File picture.

She said now was "also the time for people to make plans for their households and workplaces, including getting a plan in place for isolating at home if needed".

More details around how Omicron would be handled were being finalised, she said, including managing cases, the definition of a close contact and testing rules.

Ardern said the Government was preparing a graduated system for case management for different stages of the pandemic.

They were also doing work to ensure essential services were able to keep operating in a high transmission environment by using frequent testing, similar to health care settings.

On testing, she said the current regime would need to change with higher spread of Covid.

PCR testing in the future would be focused on people who were symptomatic, vulnerable, essential workers or close contacts, while rapid antigen testing would be more widely available.

She said there would be more details released next week on how RATs would be distributed.

The announcement on RATs not enough for the opposition, however.

National leader Christopher Luxon said the revelation that there were 4.6 million rapid tests in the country equalled “less than one per person”, and deemed the rollout “appallingly slow”.

“New Zealand has been slow on boosters and slow on vaccines for 5–11-year-olds and now we’re being appallingly slow on rapid tests,” he said.

“To make matters worse, the Prime Minister still can’t outline how they will be used, when they will be available, and what isolation rules will be in place. She even thinks our current contact tracing system will work against Omicron.”

David Seymour questioned why only the Government could distribute rapid antigen tests.

“Why can’t private citizens or businesses just buy one themselves. What is the logic of continuing the ban on Kiwis buying their own tests?,” said the ACT leader.

“What they should have said is this: The Government is committed to ensuring there are enough rapid antigen tests for those we deem high need, but you are also free to buy any of the 67 approved by Australia’s TGA.”