COVID-19 Omicron: Self-isolation for arrivals to skip MIQ now uncertain with review set for January

The dates announced for overseas arrivals to self-isolate at home are now uncertain with the Government set to review it in January in the wake of Omicron. 

With the COVID-19 variant spreading across the globe, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government wants to be "comfortable" with the changes to managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) going ahead. 

"In light of the global Omicron situation, ministers with power to act will receive the latest advice from the Ministry of Health on the variant in early January," Ardern told reporters on Monday. 

"This check-in will be to confirm that we remain comfortable with this next step in our reconnecting work. 

"I won't preempt the outcome of that check-in now, but it makes sense to ensure we assess this move against all the latest information and advice we have, including the relative effectiveness of the vaccine against the Omicron variant."

The Government announced last month that vaccinated Kiwis arriving from Australia would be able to skip MIQ from January 16 and instead self-isolate for seven days. From February 13, it would extend to Kiwis travelling from any country, and then to vaccinated non-Kiwis from April 30. 

But even at the time of that announcement, Ardern deemed overseas arrivals a "significant risk", pointing to the emergence of the new Omicron variant. She told Newshub last week it's "inevitable" the variant will find its way to New Zealand. 

COVID-19 Omicron: Self-isolation for arrivals to skip MIQ now uncertain with review set for January

The announcement of a review of the self-isolation dates will come as a blow for overseas Kiwis with flights booked to come home. There is clearly an appetite for travel, with 12,000 regional flights out of Auckland booked for December 15 when the internal border drops. 

"We haven't changed our plans. We haven't changed the timelines we've set out. But it does make sense for us to have that check-in before they're due to come in to ensure that we're still comfortable, based on the latest advice we have on Omicron," Ardern said. 

"There is nothing for which we can make that decision now. At the moment, we know it's more transmissible. We know there has been some lab-based work on the effectiveness of vaccines and from that you've seen the pharmaceutical companies coming out and speaking about the rates of effectiveness based on how recent your last dose was. 

"But our view is, we'll know even more in that first week of January, so it makes sense for us to review that information and then confirm comfort, or if there is something to alarm us, then be willing to speak to that as well."

Ardern used Australia as an example of what she doesn't want in New Zealand, where states are pushing ahead with loosening restrictions for travellers, despite rising Omicron infections.

"In Australia, we've seen them put on self-isolation requirements and then remove them. Around the world, they're being reimposed. I think it's unrealistic for us to say that there is a plan and we will not move it despite what the evidence tells us of Omicron. We have to see and listen and hear what the evidence tells us and the impact it will likely have on New Zealand," Ardern said. 

"I do want to give comfort to people that if there is evidence that suggests to us that there would be a negative impact on New Zealand, then we need to listen to that."

Other countries are responding to Omicron by bringing forward the date for booster shots. The Government announced last month that Pfizer booster shots will be available from November 29 for those who had their second dose six months ago. In the UK, it's been accelerated to three months, and Australia has shortened it to five. 

"The vast bulk of New Zealanders who are eligible for boosters who will come up to their opportunity for boosters are actually across March, April and May, so a large number of New Zealanders are quite some way off the six-month mark," Ardern said. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said it's under review. 

"We've been watching this very carefully over the last two or three weeks since the first announcements about Omicron," he said. 

"The information from Pfizer last week was reassuring that the Pfizer vaccine does seem to have a good level of efficacy against the Omicron variant, especially with that third dose. Our technical advisory group is considering this tomorrow."

Dr Bloomfield said the "key objective" is going into winter with maximum immunity. 

"By Christmas, there are 450,000 people due their booster and I'd strongly encourage them to get that as soon after six months as possible to make sure they've got full immunity. 

"But we will be providing further advice this week to see whether there is any change to the current period for that booster dose.

"Winter is the problem, as we're seeing now in Europe. In fact, Pfizer's advice last week was you could bring that down to three months in that interval, but they caveated that with if you are in winter and you've got a large outbreak, which we have neither of. 

"If you're looking in Europe, it's the equivalent of us having 3000 cases a day and obviously we're nowhere near that and our case numbers are dropping."