South Australia: The Omicron-infected state Ardern is taking COVID-19 tips from

Omicron-infected South Australia is the state Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is learning from to tailor New Zealand's response to the infectious COVID-19 variant. 

New South Wales and Victoria each have a population similar to New Zealand's 5 million, but Ardern said on Thursday she was not "sure that we can directly make a comparison" due to international arrivals "seeding" cases. 

New South Wales and Victoria in December jointly scrapped the need for vaccinated international arrivals to isolate for 72 hours, with the two states agreeing to introduce consistent COVID-19 requirements for people arriving from overseas.

Both states have since seen COVID-19 case numbers explode. New South Wales reported 30,825 new cases on Thursday and 25 deaths, while Victoria registered 21,966 new cases and 15 deaths. 

Two weeks after New South Wales and Victoria ditched quarantine rules for arrivals in December, South Australia did the same, though the state's case numbers haven't been quite as high as its neighbours. It recorded 3482 new cases on Wednesday and three deaths. 

South Australia introduced new restrictions on Boxing Day - including gathering limits and social distancing rules - which averted an explosion of Omicron cases.

South Australia has also just cut the interval for a booster vaccine to three months. In New Zealand, the interval is four months, reduced down from six months in December last year.

New Zealand continues to be free of an Omicron outbreak in the community, however a handful of people have tested positive for the highly infectious variant in Auckland and it remains to be seen if the virus has spread

The Ministry of Health registered 22 new community cases on Thursday across New Zealand, while 46 cases were picked up at the border. New Zealand's closed border is what's prevented an Omicron outbreak so far. 

"What I would say about Australia is, I'm not sure that we can directly make a comparison," Ardern told reporters on Thursday in New Plymouth. 

"We've been very deliberate that we do want to preventatively move and move very swiftly with public health restrictions to help us, and so that may put us in a different position. But it is hard for us to fully assess the impact of taking that stance. 

"I'm tending to look more at South Australia and what they're experiencing more so than, say, the likes of Victoria and New South Wales. They had a lot of seeding from the border."

But the closed border comes at a cost. The growing number of cases in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) has put pressure on the system, prompting the decision to postpone the next room release set for Thursday. 

The Government in November announced that on January 17, Kiwis arriving from Australia would be able to skip MIQ and isolate at home instead. But this was delayed until the end of February due to the threat of Omicron. 

"Cabinet has not made any decisions to overturn what has already been set there," Ardern said. "What we are all very realistic about is that it is giving us time. It is not indefinite. It is knocking at our door. We need to use the time wisely and we all need to use that time."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins couldn't provide a date for when vouchers for March and April will be available. 

"I think what people want to know is whether or not they will need to go into MIQ when they come home in March or April and at this point we haven't got a very clear answer for that," he told reporters. 

"We want to provide people with as much certainty and clarity as we can, but it is still a very uncertain time."

Adelaide, South Australia.
Adelaide, South Australia. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern has ruled out lockdowns in the event of an Omicron outbreak, but confirmed that all of New Zealand would move into the 'red' traffic light setting when it happens, which means events would be capped at 100 people. 

"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."

She 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. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

National leader Christopher Luxon says the Government is not prepared.

"New Zealand has been slow on boosters and slow on vaccines for 5-11 year olds and now we're being appallingly slow on rapid tests," he said in response.

"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 for the unvaccinated and for some selected employers.

"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."