Coronavirus: Omicron phase three 'not far away at all', Grant Robertson says

New Zealand's transition to the third phase of the Omicron plan is not "far away at all", says the Deputy Prime Minister, who expects less disruption to businesses from that point due to changes to who is a case contact.

Last Monday, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand would move to the second phase of the Omicron plan the following night, 981 community cases were recorded in the community. 

A week later, 2365 cases were reported and Grant Robertson said on Tuesday that New Zealand will soon move to Omicron phase three.

"I don't think that will be far away at all. We said around 5000 cases a day was where the trigger point for that would be. We know cases are doubling every three or four days," he told AM.

"While phase three represents a period of time where there will be a lot of cases, because of the narrowing of the definition of close contacts during that, actually that will help businesses - it will mean fewer people will be captured by the definition, and therefore would be able to carry on working."

During the third phase, the definition of contacts will change to household and household-like contacts only. That means only the highest-risk contacts will need to isolate. Currently, contacts need to isolate for seven days, while cases need to isolate for ten days.

"Supported self-service, rapid antigen testing for diagnosing COVID and a self-service tool to enable identification of high-risk contacts will be significant to respond to the high volumes of Omicron cases," associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said when announcing the plan.

Ardern on Monday said the peak of Omicron is expected before the end of March. Based on overseas experience, a "rapid decline" in cases could then be expected before they stabilise at a lower level. 

"We are predicting cases will continue to double every three to four days," Ardern said. "It's likely then that very soon we will all know people who have COVID or we will potentially get it ourselves."

Businesses have been speaking out about their concerns that a high number of people isolating will cripple their customer base and affect their ability to operate. MYOB research released earlier this month showed  32 percent of SMEs were already seeing fewer sales, 27 percent said their customer numbers were down and 22 percent said there was pressure on cash flow.

The Government has introduced a close contact exemption scheme which allows employees of businesses which assess themselves as "critical" to return to work even if they are a close contact as long as they return daily negative tests. 

Omicron-affected businesses will also be able to access the Government's new COVID Support Payment. To be eligible, businesses must be able to show a 40 percent drop over seven days within the six weeks prior to the February 15 shift to the current second phase.