Coronavirus: Ashley Bloomfield not ruling out recommending further lockdowns if Omicron gets into community

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield isn't ruling out recommending COVID-19 lockdowns if Omicron is found in the community.

He confirmed the variant was found in a person currently in managed isolation in Christchurch earlier on Thursday. They came to New Zealand from Germany via Dubai, and they arrived in Auckland before travelling to Christchurch on a charter flight with all the usual health protocols in place. 

The person was tested for COVID-19 on day 1, with the positive test result coming back on day 2 - that's December 12. 

While New Zealand's current outbreak and the previous lockdown were due to Delta, Dr Bloomfield isn't ruling out recommending a tightening of restrictions if Omicron makes its way into the community.

"Even under the current framework, there is a provision for local restrictions or lockdowns. And so whether it's Omicron or Delta, that's available there as a response if there is an outbreak where we think that might be necessary to help get control and reduce the impact, particularly on health services," he said during a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

"Again, it probably doesn't matter if it's Delta or Omicron, but at this point in time we're intent on keeping Omicron out of the community."

But recommending a lockdown would come down to "what the situation actually was". Dr Bloomfield says health officials want as much time as possible to learn from the emerging evidence of Omicron, particularly in Australia - since they're in a similar seasonal situation as New Zealand.

"But also [we want] to see what the spread is of the Omicron variant there compared with the paralleled Delta spread. And I think that's going to be really useful in terms of decision-making about what we might do if we do find an Omicron case in the community."

Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty Images

The arrival of Omicron in New Zealand is prompting health experts to encourage Kiwis to remain vigilant. Dianne Sika-Paotonu, an immunologist and head of the University of Otago in Wellington's Pacific office, says while vaccination levels have increased in Aotearoa, people still need to be cautious.

"Areas remain in Aotearoa New Zealand where there is lower vaccine coverage and we are still dealing with a serious Delta outbreak, with COVID-19 continuing to spread across the country," Dr Sika-Paotonu says.

"With the recent shift into the COVID-19 Protection Framework/traffic light system, more people will be interacting and getting out and about coming into close contact with each other, increasing risk that this will promote and accelerate spread - especially for those who are vulnerable, including our children."

Dr Sika-Paotonu says preliminary data from Pfizer shows its vaccine protection against Omicron was better after three doses, rather than two.

"The third dose also showed stronger T cell [a type of white blood cell] immune responses were still generated, which is important as T cells are considered to indicate protection against severe COVID-19 disease.

"This supports the need for a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the form of a vaccine booster after the initial two doses, in order to help protect against the Omicron variant."

Dr Bloomfield says reducing the amount of time between the second and booster dose of the vaccine is something officials are looking at, given it's a move other countries have already made in response to Omicron.

"I've got some advice that I received just yesterday on this and we're discussing it with ministers tomorrow to see if the advice is to reduce our interval."