Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has outlined a “three stage” plan to manage the spread of Omicron in the community, marking a transition to a more endemic approach of tackling the pandemic.
The new approach comes after Ardern announced nine community cases in Nelson had contracted the Omicron variant of Covid-19. As of Sunday afternoon, no links had been established between the cases and the border.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the chance of undetected community transmission is “high” because of the cases' presence at multiple high-risk events.
Ardern said the Government’s new three-phase approach was designed in scenario planning with an upper-limit assumption of up to 50,000 cases a day.
While there are less than 1000 new cases a day, Ardern said New Zealand would be in the first stage of the plan.
In this phase, health officials would have “significant capacity” to continue trying to stamp out Omicron outbreaks using the same methods as they do now for Delta.
This would mean continuing PCR testing in the community and contact tracing of positive cases. But, rapid antigen testing would be “integrated into [testing] sites, as required.”
Ardern added the first stage would continue with the extended isolation requirements for cases and known contacts that were introduced on Wednesday.
The second stage would be a “transition” phase where health officials would identify cases with a greater risk of severe illness from the Omicron variant.
A third stage would then come into effect when there are thousands of new cases daily. This stage would see changes to isolation requirements and the definition of contacts.
Case numbers to justify moving into the third stage aren't expected for several weeks, according to Ardern.
The PM said Bloomfield and Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall would give more detail about stages two and three in a press conference on Wednesday.
More detail about expanding the use of rapid antigen testing and changes to contact tracing would be available by then, Ardern said.
Throughout the stages, Ardern added that there would be a “test to work” regime for essential workers.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said initial planning had focused on electricity, water, logistics and supply chain workforces.
He said testing would be part of the plan to prevent shelves from going empty amid an outbreak.
“I know that there's business continuity planning from those businesses to make sure that they have their teams organised to maximise the number of people who can be available.”
Other countries have faced significant disruption to critical workforces due to the size of their Omicron waves, with Australian authorities scrambling to enable more people to work amid empty shelves.
Last Monday, leading public health experts wrote that the government would need to signal a shift to a “mitigation strategy” once Omicron took hold in the community.
University of Otago lecturers Prof Michael Baker, Dr Jennifer Summers, Dr Amanda Kvalsvig and the University of Auckland’s Dr Matire Harwood wrote that the shift needed to be clear.
“This would be an explicit recognition that Omicron outbreaks are extremely hard to eliminate or substantially suppress and so the best that can be feasibly achieved in the New Zealand setting is to mitigate spread.
“[Meaning] to minimise harm in the most vulnerable, to prevent the health system being overwhelmed, and to reduce social and economic disruption.”
The public health experts said a shift would see the country move to a “flattening the curve” goal that would mean less focus on stopping every chain of transmission.
Public health objectives would change to spreading out total cases over a longer period to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed while at-risk communities could be protected.
Ardern said the Government’s approach to tackling Omicron would be based on the fact that it had substantially different characteristics as compared to Delta and previous variants.
“We know that Omicron is very transmissible, but we also know that most people, particularly when they've been vaccinated and have a booster, will experience mild to moderate illness.”
Since last September, New Zealand has been suppressing case numbers under what experts have dubbed “tight suppression”, since the elimination strategy was abandoned during Auckland’s Delta outbreak. The Government refers to its current strategy as “minimisation and protection” in official documentation.