The Government will use a new five-scenario framework to prepare for new Covid-19 variants, while Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall says strict public health measures, such as lockdowns or border closures will be a "last resort" in response to harsher variants.
Verrall unveiled the new strategic framework, alongside outgoing Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, on Wednesday.
The new strategy outlined five potential scenarios, all of which were based on a new variant emerging that was more infectious than existing Omicron subvariants. It suggested that there is a "high likelihood that a new [variant] will emerge within weeks or months".
Bloomfield said the scenarios primarily differed in whether new variants would be more severe - like Delta - or whether they evaded existing immunity, like vaccinations and previous Covid infections.
"There's an old saying, 'plan for the worst and hope for the best'. We're not doing any hoping here. We're planning for the best, and we're planning for the worst, and everything that's in between," he said.
He outlined the "worst-case scenario" that could see Kiwis face a more severe and more transmissible variant - that also evaded existing immunity.
"So a variant that [has] high clinical severity - so Delta or even worse - but also high immune escape, that [means] prior infection or a vaccination with our current vaccines doesn't confer a lot of protection," he said.
"There are also questions about whether our current therapeutics may or may not be effective against that new variant."
Addressing gathered media, Verrall was at pains to suggest that strict measures like lockdowns or border closures were a "last resort" in response to harsher variants, but couldn't positively rule them out.
"These measures are absolutely a last resort. We know that if we have strong underlying public health measures, the need for more stringent measures is reduced," she said. "Look at what we've been able to achieve with reopening the border by using vaccination. That's precisely what we mean here.
"By getting the fundamentals right, we reduce the need for strict measures, however, Covid has taught us we need to remain prepared for a range of scenarios."
Verrall said existing preparations underpinned by the strategy included retaining the country's PCR testing capacity for Covid-19 samples, contact tracing ability, and vaccination system.
"We have a vaccination system that could be stood up to vaccinate the population. If we need to vaccinate the whole population again, at speed."
She said the new framework document was not intended to be a detailed plan for outbreaks of new variants.
"There is a lot of uncertainty and, in that context, having a highly prescriptive plan can actually be a liability," she said. "Instead, we need to be prepared for different scenarios and to be able to adapt as we need to."
During the media conference, Bloomfield also commented on the ongoing process to roll out a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, also known as a second booster.
He said he was in the process of finalising his advice to Ministers and couldn't confirm who would be eligible. But he said that his advice would specifically preclude any groups from being mandated to have the second booster.
"I can say that my advice, and it's still forming, is already clear that no group should be mandated to have that second booster."
Some workers, primarily in the health sector, are currently mandated to have the third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. A single booster shot is also currently required to obtain a vaccination pass.
On Wednesday, there were 5499 new Covid cases and 18 deaths reported.