Analysis: What you need to know as NZ prepares for Omicron

The Government is set to reveal more about its plan for the highly infectious Omicron Covid variant, next week. 1News’ Senior Digital Political Producer Anna Whyte looks at what has been announced in response to Omicron so far, what the situation is now and what we should look out for.

What do we know?

If there was evidence of Omicron community transmission beyond border-related cases, the whole of New Zealand would move into the traffic light setting Red within 24-48 hours.

This week, MIQ hit pause on new room releases for March and April, due to a huge rise in returnees travelling back with Omicron.

Jacinda Ardern said the Government was building a plan as the threat of Omicron looms, with measures such as vaccines, new medicines and the traffic light system meaning New Zealand won't have to use widespread lockdowns in 2022.

Ardern said on Thursday more details around how Omicron would be handled are being finalised, including managing cases, the definition of a close contact and testing rules.

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.

The availability of rapid antigen tests would increase, with more details released next week on how RATs would be distributed.

On isolation, the Ministry of Health on Friday extended the timeframe for Covid-19 cases and their close contacts due to Omicron’s infectiousness.

It means cases now must isolate for two weeks, instead of 10 days. Close contacts must isolate for 10 days, rather than seven.

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

"We'll be looking to share that as early as next week."

When asked by 1News' deputy political editor Maiki Sherman why the detail around close contacts and testing for Omicron was still being worked through and why it wasn't released on Thursday, Ardern said they did have that detail, "but we're providing information in a staged way, to be fair the initial stage of Omicron will be as it is now".

"What we're talking about is the stages where we have higher case levels and the graduated system will apply when we come to those higher case levels."

She then said "for the most part" they had the details on close contact definition and testing procedures.

"There are some final details we are working through. We have a broad plan, yes, we have a graduated system, yes, but we will be providing the finalised detail of that next week and it also gives a chance for it to be presented in full to Cabinet as well."

What's going on now

Friday saw a person in Palmerston North, who had returned five negative tests in MIQ, test positive for Omicron. There was also a possible Omicron case in Auckland, an airport employee found via routine surveillance testing with investigations underway. Meanwhile, the numbers of returnees with Covid continue to climb, another 44 at the border.

Ardern on Thursday said people should be making plans for their households and workplaces, "including getting a plan in place for isolating at home if needed" and 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.

Speaker Trevor Mallard tweeted on Thursday, "Omicron is coming and when it arrives it will spread quickly".

"If you can afford it, it will pay to stock up a bit. There will be thousands of close contacts a day. If I’m not one of them I will be happy to do grocery and medicine runs for Wainuiomata people.

Māori Party's Rawiri Waititi replied to the Speaker, saying his encouragement was not helpful, adding it marginalised "the already marginalised as they don’t have the privilege of bulk buying, they’re just trying to survive".

The Opposition have also been critical of time the Government is taking to release its plan, with National accusing the Government of "scrambling" and ACT say it's " now making a plan about a plan".

More than 20 million rapid antigen tests have been ordered to help detect the new variant once it arrives.

What to look for next week

Changes to the definition of close contacts will be one to watch out for, after Australia was forced to relax restrictions on essential workers who were close contacts, as large numbers of employees had to isolate due to the number of Covid cases.

The Government has stressed that testing for Covid, including rapid antigen tests, will be free in New Zealand. Should that be extended to high-grade masks? Or at least ensure those who can't afford or can't access stronger masks can get them.

ACT have been calling for a targeted approach to boosters for those who need it most.

A lack of prioritisation and a slower targeted approach of Māori in the vaccine rollout had a big impact in the Delta outbreak. Dr Sean Hanna told 1News one of the reason Capital and Coast's DHB managed to pull the Māori vaccination rate up faster, was due to the prioritisation and faster resourcing of the Māori and Pacific providers out in the Porirua area "to deliver the vaccine to the community that they know".

"There's really the opportunity to do better with boosting and with childhood vaccinations. I think we need to prioritise Māori and all marginalised communities."

Clarity over MIQ could possibly be on the cards in the next few weeks, as a question mark hangs over the current state of the Covid-filled facilities. The Government could look to give clarity about when or if the pause on room release will end, what would happen to MIQ in the event of a high community outbreak of Omicron, when home-isolation options could be on the cards, or if there were any changes considered around the length of the stay, in light of Omicron.

Chris Hipkins said a decision on when the next MIQ room release would be made by “in coming weeks as part of Cabinet’s considerations on the border”. He said New Zealand was likely to have MIQ for “quite some time, whether we have MIQ for everybody is a different question."