Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Govt to unveil plans to reconnect NZ to rest of the world

Kiwis will learn tomorrow when and how international travel might resume, after the Omicron response put the skids on reopening plans.

It comes as daily case numbers top 100 and a Government announcement that it has secured millions of rapid antigen tests for use during the Omicron outbreak.

Among those hoping for a clear date and some guidance about the borders is Martin Newell in Melbourne, who has been trying to get home to see his family since early 2020.

Newell, a spokesman for the Grounded Kiwis support group, said sensible measures around home isolation, vaccines and surveillance could help more people return home.

“I just want them to give us a date,” Newell said from Australia last night.

Cabinet met yesterday to discuss the pandemic response.

Afterwards, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said a speech on Thursday will outline how New Zealand will reconnect with the world.

On December 21, the phased border reopening was postponed as the Omicron strain of Covid-19 started circulating globally.

“For us, it was hard in December to hear the news that home isolation and self-isolation were postponed, but it was understandable given what was happening with Omicron around the world,” Newell said.

Newell said he expected a border reopening of sorts would be planned for the end of February.

“We’ll wait till that actually happens. We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Anything resembling pre-pandemic travel and tourism was unlikely to resume soon, he said.

But what he wanted was for people to get a chance to see parents, to introduce kids to grandparents, to reunite with loved ones.

“We’re Kiwis that want to come home and hug our whānau.”

Newell said Kiwis overseas could safely return, if sensible measures were in place.

“No Kiwi overseas would argue that MIQ was wrong to be implemented in 2020.”

But the managed isolation system had been totally incapable of keeping up with demand, he said.

“It should be a condition that you should be triple-vaccinated to get into home isolation.”

Yesterday, 126 new community Covid-19 cases were reported nationwide as the Omicron outbreak begins to take hold.

New Zealand is currently in the red traffic light phase of the Omicron response.

That phase exists within the first stage of a planned three-pronged response to Omicron, a relatively mild but highly transmissible Covid-19 strain.

The current pandemic response phase bans gatherings of more than 100 people.

The hospitality sector says the Omicron response is scaring people into a sort of voluntary lockdown, and Auckland CBD turnover is down at least 50 per cent.

“People are not going into work, and they’re not going out,” Hospitality NZ chief executive Julie White said.

“Our city centres are emptying out, and even suburban centres are quieter.”

She said some workplaces believed the stand-down system for close contacts would disrupt staffing and force cuts to services, production and operations.

The current isolation period for close contacts is 10 days from last exposure.

“It will be impossible to find new staff, especially at short notice,” White said.

The Government has indicated it expects Omicron to spread quickly, perhaps to the point where within a few weeks the pandemic response will significantly shift.

In the second phase, testing and tracing will focus on protecting vulnerable groups and critical workers, Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said last week.

Yesterday, Verrall said 36 million extra rapid antigen tests had been secured.

She said when the Omicron outbreak peaked, Kiwis might need nine million tests a week.

Physicist Dr Dion O’Neale from Te Pūnaha Matatini said the tens of millions of rapid tests would help manage growing Omicron infection numbers.

He told the Science Media Centre the tests could return results in minutes, rather than days.

That made it possible to confirm infections much sooner after exposure, and for people to respond by self-isolating to break further chains of transmission, he said.

Immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said it was crucial to slow down Omicron’s spread in communities for as long as possible.

She told the Science Media Centre if the strain was allowed to proliferate, hospitals would become overwhelmed, as they had been in Australia.

The Act Party said the Government announcement on rapid tests was self-serving, and the product of two U-turns.

“One, it is begging for rapid antigen tests that it used to ban,” party leader David Seymour said.

“Two, it is now letting businesses import rapid antigen tests without them being confiscated.”

He added: “Instead of preparing, the Government made them illegal and banned their import, before realising its mistake and stealing them from private businesses.”

The Government has repeatedly rejected suggestions it seized any rapid antigen tests destined for private companies.

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