Three weeks at home to fight Omicron: Jacinda Ardern's critics denounce 'whopping 24-day isolation rule'

Three weeks at home - that's what's expected of household contacts of COVID-19 cases as the Government prepares for an Omicron outbreak. 

It's part of 'Phase 1', the first of three stages in the Government's response to Omicron, the COVID-19 variant that has spread rapidly across the globe and is now active in the New Zealand community. 

"At this stage, we're doing what we've successfully done with Delta, taking that 'stamp-it-out' approach, and this will be familiar to you," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at her last-minute press conference on Sunday. 

It came after nine cases of Omicron discovered in the Nelson region - a family who flew to Auckland and attended a wedding with over 100 guests - had no clear link to the border, prompting an immediate shift into the most restrictive 'red' traffic light setting. 

To try and slow down the spread, gatherings are restricted to 100 people and guests at hospitality venues must be seated and separated. And close contacts of COVID-19 cases cannot leave their home for up to three weeks, even if they do not return a single positive test.

At her press conference, Ardern said: "At this stage, you will need to isolate for 14 days if you are a case, and 10 days if you are contact."

But it's not just 10 days for close contacts. 

The Ministry of Health's rules state: "The isolation period for COVID-19 cases in the community is at least 14 days, including 72 hours symptom-free. Your household members will need to remain in isolation for at least 10 days after you have been released as a case."

Close contacts of COVID-19 cases cannot leave their home for up to three weeks.
Close contacts of COVID-19 cases cannot leave their home for up to three weeks. Photo credit: Getty Images

The effect is that if someone tests positive, members of their household may have to be isolated for 24 days. The Government has estimated 350,000 people at once could be self-isolating during this outbreak.

Otago University Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, explains. 

"If you're in a household situation where someone is isolating, they're considered to be infectious right up till the end. If you're in that same house as them and you're a contact, then your last day of contact starts on their day 14 when they're considered to no longer be infectious and your 10 days starts then."   

Ardern's critics were quick to denounce the rules, including Daily Mail contributor and Kiwi Dan Wootton, who wrote a scathing piece about Ardern's "increasingly desperate quest to keep my homeland a Zero Covid hermit kingdom". 

"Many Kiwis have become so brainwashed by Ardern's incessant spin - swallowed whole by a compliant liberal media - that they reacted with a mere shrug when her government at the weekend revealed citizens who are household contacts of anyone who tests positive for Covid will have to self-isolate for a whopping 24 days as part of her 'stamp it out' policy approach."

ACT leader David Seymour described the rules as "unworkable", because "people who cannot afford that will have a strong incentive not to get tested, defeating the purpose of the policy". 

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

Auckland GP Dr Peter Boot, medical director of Northcare Accident and Medical on the North Shore, shared a similar sentiment.

"I expect the Government's system, where [cases] are meant to stay at home, and their families are meant to stay at home for longer, will be just disregarded by large sectors of society who have to work or just don't want to stay at home. I am sure the whole thing will fall to pieces quite quickly," he told RNZ. 

But the isolation rule is expected to be temporary. 

"Phase 1 will include the period we have up to 1000 cases a day or less. We expect this scenario, in the initial stages of the outbreak, could take up to 14 days to arrive," Ardern said. 

"Stage 2 will be a transition stage, where we adjust the system to focus much more on identifying those who are at greater risk of severe illness from Omicron, which will be a smaller percentage of cases. 

"At the third stage, when cases are in the thousands per day, we will then make changes to contact tracing, the definition of contacts, and isolation requirements."

Ardern acknowledged that not all will support the Government's plan, but she urged the country to come together to help slow down the new variant's spread. 

"I know not everyone sees this pandemic in the same way, but for the most part we're motivated by the same thing - and that's looking out for each other. So get boosted, start wearing a mask in all indoor settings and get prepared at home."

More details on the updated definitions of contacts and isolation requirements under the three phases will be provided on Wednesday by Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. 

Seymour is hoping for rules similar to the UK, which were changed last week, so that household contacts can leave isolation after five days if they have negative tests on two consecutive days. 

"The Government badly needs to front on this issue. It needs to explain why these rules are put in place, and why it believes the benefits of an isolation regime stricter than any other country bar China is justified. 

"It should release the modelling it has relied on in an open and transparent way, the way this Government once promised to act."

The Government is trying to avoid a scenario like Australia, where COVID-19 cases and related deaths have shot up. New South Wales reported 18,512 new cases on Tuesday and 29 deaths, while neighbouring Victoria registered 14,836 new cases and 29 deaths. 

New South Wales does not automatically deem household members as close contacts and require them to isolate. It allows people to use their judgement. The state also does not require overseas arrivals to quarantine. 

Ardern said New Zealand will remain cautious. 

"For most people it will be mild to moderate illness that you can manage at home. Why, then, you may ask are we going to such lengths to slow it down? For the same reasons we have always taken COVID seriously, because we're a team," she said. 

"Some of our team are immune-compromised, some have illnesses, some have vulnerabilities, and, of course, many are older. All of these things means our team will not experience Omicron in the same way. But if one of us doesn't play our part, then someone else may suffer."

There is financial support available from the Government to employers to help pay their employees who've been advised to self-isolate because of COVID-19 and can't work at home.

The leave support scheme is $600 per week per full-time worker, and $359 per week for a part-time worker. 

There is also the short-term absence payment available to help bosses pay their employees who cannot work from home while they wait for the result of a COVID-19 test. That is paid at $359 per eligible worker.