COVID-19 Omicron: Christopher Luxon unsure if shifting to 'red' is right move due to 'very confusing' traffic light criteria

National leader Christopher Luxon is unsure if shifting to 'red' is the right move in the event of an Omicron outbreak due to the "very confusing" traffic light criteria.  

His comments came after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that in the event of an Omicron outbreak, New Zealand would shift to the red traffic light of the COVID-19 Protection Framework, which last year replaced the alert levels. 

The entire country is currently at orange, meaning there are no gathering limits for the vaccinated. At red, gatherings are capped at 100 for the vaccinated and hospitality guests must be seated and separated. 

Luxon, when asked if he supported the Prime Minister's announcement, said he was unsure because he didn't understand the traffic light system criteria. 

"I don't understand the logic behind the criteria that's being used for the traffic light system," he told reporters in Nelson. 

"It's not to say we shouldn't have a system, but it's just the fact that we've gone from alert levels, to steps, to traffic lights, and when I've looked at the logic of when we move between colours, it's been quite unclear. I don't understand the criteria or the logic.

"If the criteria is spelled out very clearly about what it is and what it isn't, then that's a conversation that we can have, but red as I understand it today means our healthcare system is chronically overwhelmed, so will that be the case at that point in time or not? That's the decision we need to be clear about."

According to a summary of the traffic light system available on the Government's Unite Against COVID-19 website, the red setting is implemented when the health system is "facing an unsustainable number of hospitalisations". 

COVID-19 Omicron: Christopher Luxon unsure if shifting to 'red' is right move due to 'very confusing' traffic light criteria
National leader Christopher Luxon speaking in Nelson.
National leader Christopher Luxon speaking in Nelson. Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern said she wanted to avoid a health system overload, so the country would be shifted to red before it could happen, but she did not provide details about what amount of Omicron cases is considered an outbreak, nor how long the red setting would be in place. 

She did, however, confirm that the red setting would be implemented within 24 to 48 hours, and that lockdowns and regional boundaries would not be used. 

"We know from other countries that it can take as little as 14 days for cases to grow from the hundreds into the thousands across the country," Ardern said. 

"It is important to remember that red does not mean lockdowns or regional boundaries, and businesses remain open. What it does mean is immediately increasing our use of masks, changing the way we interact in hospitality and reducing gathering sizes in order to slow Omicron down."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub

ACT leader David Seymour said a shift to red will make little difference. 

"I think the traffic light system will make a difference but whether it's in orange or red will make very little difference," he told reporters. 

"If the Prime Minister's big plan when Omicron hits is we're going to red, all she's really saying is that you won't have particularly large events. That will slow down the spread to some extent, but I suspect that Omicron's infectiousness means it doesn't make a big difference if you have a superspreader event. 

"I don't have a strong opinion on it - I just don't think it will make much difference."

Seymour said the real question is "how we will change our approach" once Omicron becomes widespread in the community. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in New Plymouth.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in New Plymouth. Photo credit: Newshub

Both Seymour and Luxon have been urging the Government to roll out rapid antigen tests more widely than just the unvaccinated and some selected employers.

"National has been saying for months they should be widely available, including from supermarkets and pharmacies. Yet the Government has done little other than to make them available," Luxon said. 

"It looks like the Government is making the same mistakes all over again and embarking on a second year of COVID complacency: a lack of urgency, a lack of a plan, and making things up as they go. New Zealand deserves better."

Seymour said: "Why can only the Government distribute rapid antigen tests? Why can't private citizens or businesses just buy one themselves? What is the logic of continuing the ban on Kiwis buying their own tests?"

Ardern said the Government is working to ensure that essential services are able to continue operating in a high-transmission environment by using more frequent testing. 

"Rapid antigen tests will be used more widely. They perform best when rates of COVID are high - such as during the peaks of transmission other countries have experienced with Omicron. Currently we have 4.6 million in the country and tens of millions on order."

Testing will be prioritised for those who are symptomatic, vulnerable, essential workers and close contacts, and it will remain free.