Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern says second Omicron phase likely within days, pushes back against claims critical worker scheme confusing

Businesses can expect a move to the second Omicron phase very shortly, the Prime Minister says, as she pushes back on suggestions the Government's isolation exemption scheme is confusing.

A three-phase plan to deal with the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant was released in January days after the Government moved New Zealand to red-light settings in response to a handful of community cases. 

In the three weeks since then, and particularly in the last few days, cases have surged. On Sunday, 810 were reported - the largest in a single day and nearly double the previous record.

While the first phase is fairly business as usual in the COVID-19 era - a "stamp it out approach" with the usual contact tracing, isolation and testing processes - things change at the second phase. At this phase, isolation periods reduce and the Government's close contact exemption process comes into effect.

"Today, we'll be discussing as a Cabinet and with our public health officials the movement to phase two, but you'll remember the time frames we put around that were based on case numbers," Jacinda Ardern said on Monday. "We said roughly when we hit in the order of 1000, so now is the time to be having that discussion."

The Prime Minister said officials would be monitoring how the health system is operating with the larger number of cases. She said businesses can plan for phase two to begin in the coming days.

"We said roughly when we hit in the order of 1000, so now is the time to be having that discussion."
"We said roughly when we hit in the order of 1000, so now is the time to be having that discussion." Photo credit: Getty Images.

With more cases also comes more contacts. To reduce the burden that may place on businesses who see a large chunk of their workforce out of action isolating, the Government has created a test-to-return scheme for phase two.

People who work for businesses which determine they are critical - an online tool is available for employers to self-assess whether they fit the criteria - can go to work if they return daily negative tests. 

A letter will be provided to businesses that register, enabling eligible workers to use rapid antigen tests (RATs) either held by their employer or to collect the tests from a collection site. Workers will be given enough testing kits to cover the period they would have been isolating and collection sites will be highlighted on the Healthpoint website. 

However, the system has been labelled confusing by businesses and Opposition MPs, who say workers have to jump through hoops to prove they are critical workers and contacts.

Ardern rejected that, however, calling the process "straightforward". 

"A business can self-identify, jump online, say they consider themselves to be critical. They will then get issued documentation that shows their critical workforce. The worker takes that documentation, some personal ID, but they also have to show they are a contact. Otherwise, why would they need it? 

"They go down to a local collection point, can be a pharmacy if it's a rural area, can be any local amenity that we're working on to make sure they have them locally and pick up a pack of ten and that's it."

At the second phase of the Omicron plan, the system's focus will move to "identifying those who are at greater risk of severe illness from Omicron", as associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said in January. The isolation period for cases will drop from 14 days to 10 days, and for contacts to just seven days. 

"Digital technology is used more in this phase. Cases will be notified via text message and be directed to an online self-investigation tool which will focus on high risk exposures. Information will be provided via email and phone based interviews will still take place where it’s required. Other forms of support will be available to those who need it."