COVID-19: Government reveals plan to combat Omicron

The Government has revealed its plan to keep the Omicron variant of COVID-19 out of the community and combat it if it does break free.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed the suite of precautionary measures on Tuesday, warning "we need to do more" to prepare for it.

"All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible COVID-19 variant yet and public health advice says that soon, every case that comes into MIQ will be Omicron," Hipkins said.

"But experts still don't know how severe it is. So while it's sweeping the globe at a bewildering speed and appears to be the dominant variant, how sick it makes people and the impact it has on health systems is not yet fully understood.

"Parts of the world are going back into lockdown and experiencing major disruption, and with these extra steps we aim to keep Omicron at bay to ensure New Zealanders get the break they deserve and businesses can remain open."

The Government's plan to combat Omicron includes several separate measures listed below.

Booster doses

The first step is accelerating the booster rollout by shortening the period between the second and booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine

Hipkins says the evidence shows a booster dose with Pfizer provides better protection than a two-dose course against the Omicron variant.

"While two doses is likely to hold a good degree of protection against severe disease from Omicron, a third dose is likely to offer great protection against transmission of COVID-19 and reduce the chance of more serious infections," he says.

This shorter timeframe will start in January, meaning over 82 percent of vaccinated New Zealanders will be eligible for a booster by the end of February 2022.

Hipkins says due to the risk of Omicron entering the community from the border, Cabinet has also agreed in principle to extend the vaccine mandate to boosters.

"Initially this will be for those workers most likely to come into contact with Omicron - border and health workers - who will be required to have their booster by the end of January, or not later than six months after their second dose for those who were only recently vaccinated, and then to all others who are under a vaccination mandate by the 1st of March."

Strengthening MIQ

Hipkins has also announced further measures to strengthen the border. The Government is:

  • Shortening the pre-departure test requirement from 72 hours to 48 hours before travel to pick up more people with the virus before they get on a plane
  • Temporarily increasing the length of stay from seven to 10 days instead of allowing returnees to do their final three days of isolation at home
  • Contemplating implementing a requirement for all non-New Zealand citizens entering to New Zealand to have had a booster dose before flying

Changes to re-opening plan

To slow the rapid spread seen overseas, Hipkins is pushing out the start of non-MIQ travel until the end of February 2022.

"There's no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans, but it's important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans," he says.

"Waiting till the end of February will increase New Zealand's overall protection and slow Omicron's eventual spread."

COVID-19 vaccinations to protect tamariki

The Government will also roll out the child version of the Pfizer vaccine to children aged five to 11 from January 17.

"Cabinet has agreed with the advice from the COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group, off the back of Medsafe approval that confirms both the safety and efficacy of the paediatric vaccine, to use of the vaccine to protect 5 to 11-years-olds," Hipkins announces.

"There are 476,000 children between ages 5-11 who will become eligible to get their first dose from this date, and their second dose at least eight weeks later."

He says  24 percent of cases in the most recent outbreak have been aged 11 or under, and children can become severely ill and require hospitalisation. Children infected with COVID-19 can also transmit the virus to other people.

The Ministry of Health is working with iwi, DHBs, hauora providers, and community organisations to roll out the Pfizer vaccine to children in ways that suit whānau and communities.

"The Government is strongly encouraging parents to have their children vaccinated against COVID-19, but I want to be clear that this is a choice for parents. The Government has no intention of making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for anyone in this age group," Hipkins says.

"I encourage parents to make an informed choice and have their children vaccinated to protect them and those they love.

Use of traffic light system to manage outbreaks

Hipkins says the above changes will buy New Zealand "as much time as we can".

But he warns Omicron has changed the Government's plans of a more reactive stance with protective measures under the new traffic light system.

"When it does arrive, we expect that it will spread fast, and that's what we're seeing in other places. To slow that spread, we may use the red traffic light settings earlier on. That will give us the best chance to avoid returning to more restrictive alert level settings," Hipkins says.

"It is not our intention to move to lockdowns unless absolutely necessary in the event of a widespread outbreak where our health system comes under considerable strain - and even then the strong preference is for the lockdown to be highly targeted."

Plans for the phased border reopening will be reviewed at the end of February. Hipkins says at this point around 3 million more Kiwis will be eligible for booster shots and the rollout to five-11 year-olds will be "well underway".