COVID-19: ACT says Government should dump scanning, long isolation periods, traffic light system

New Zealand's current COVID-19 response features a "mishmash of rules that don't make sense" and measures designed for earlier variants of the virus where "the costs now outweigh any benefits", ACT is claiming.

The party has run a cost-benefit analysis over several COVID-19 interventions, proposing that QR code scanning should be dropped immediately, isolation periods shortened, and the traffic light system done away with.

It's difficult to justify vaccine mandates solely on the grounds "that it reduces hospitalisation risk for unvaccinated people themselves and thus pressure on the health system", ACT says. 

"This effect has already reached saturation. Unless a new requirement for boosters is introduced, mandating is having a negligible effect on vaccine uptake and should be dropped immediately."  

Among the list of suggestions in a new paper ACT released on Thursday, the party does advocate for mask requirements and says boosters are playing an important role in reducing the costs of Omicron's spread.

"Fatigue is setting in after nearly two years of restrictions. There's a growing appetite for an end to government controls in favour of freedom – for people to take back control of their own lives," ACT leader David Seymour said.

"Omicron is a 'whole new virus' and as such requires different policy responses from previous variants. Its higher infectiousness means preventing spread is more costly and its lower virulence means that the benefits of preventing cases are smaller than with Delta and other variants."

The document, titled 'Move On: It's time to get our way of life back' and featuring a picture of the All Blacks on the cover, argues the Government's pandemic response should "consider all the costs to New Zealanders' wellbeing as well as the benefits of fighting COVID-19 when putting controls in place". 

With Omicron being more transmissible but less virulent than Delta, ACT says the Government needs to change its way of thinking about different interventions.

Scanning, isolating and masking 

On scanning and contact tracing, ACT says the benefits of keeping track of peoples' movements to speed up the identification of close contacts is reduced by the current high caseload and the relatively low number of scans. 

The party admits "the costs of the policy are not large but they are there", mentioning the money spent on contact tracing and compliance costs for businesses and customers.

"Contact tracing creates relatively minor costs, but also delivers negligible benefits because it does not reach enough potential contacts or reach them fast enough in light of Omicron’s higher transmissibility," the paper says.

"It results in some people isolating because they are 'pinged' but often not in time to prevent them from transmitting the virus. The resulting isolation that comes from being pinged is a disaster for business and supply chains."

It says the requirement for businesses to display codes and for people to scan in should be "dropped along with the requirement to contact trace cases".

With the move to Omicron phase 3, the definition of a contact is being changed to only household contacts

A spokesperson for associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said scanning will still be encouraged to identify high-risk exposure points, but there will be limited use of push notifications, locations of interest and Bluetooth tracing. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said on Thursday that scanning is still helpful.

"People can still notify their non-household contacts. The difference is that those people are not required to isolate. I think it is really helpful for people to know if they have been exposed because then they can act accordingly to protect others." 

Under the Omicron phase three rules, cases and household contacts must isolate for 10 days before they can then self-release.

ACT says isolation can slow the spread of the virus, but "if people are afraid of excessive isolation periods, they are less likely to get tested and to comply with contact tracers".

The party says household contacts should be regularly tested, including with RATs, and if they return a negative test, they can continue on with their lives. Cases should be able to leave isolation as soon as they receive a negative test "whenever that occurs after the initial 72 hours".

The paper supports mask requirements for reducing spread despite them being "extremely irritating". Other costs identified include "the lack of normalcy that comes with people covering their faces in most social situations".

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Vaccine mandates, boosters

Vaccine mandates have been the centre of attention in recent weeks after protesters swarmed Parliament's grounds, erecting camps and blocking surrounding streets. 

Many there oppose the mandates put in place across certain workforces, such as border, health, education, police, Defence Force, Corrections, Fire and Emergency and close contact businesses. Private workplaces can also implement their own vaccination requirements. 

ACT says the potential benefits of vaccine mandates are in "reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in high-risk environments" and reducing "the pressure on the healthcare system" as unvaccinated people are more likely to get seriously ill if they catch COVID-19.

However, it says while there "was strong evidence vaccination significantly reduced the chance of catching and transmitting COVID-19", the difference between the vaccinated and unvaccinated "has shrunk with Omicron". 

The Ministry of Health says people who are fully vaccinated "have less protection against transmission of Omicron than for Delta". 

ACT cited figures that show between February 12 and February 19, 267 out of every 100,000 unvaccinated persons tested positive for COVID-19, compared to 220 for partially vaccinated and 224 for fully vaccinated. 

"In other words, if all you know about a person is their vaccination status, it is unlikely that will tell you much about their likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19."

It says with high vaccination rates - 96.5 percent of those over 12 are partially vaccinated and 94.9 percent have had two doses - and the unvaccinated "very unlikely to change their mind", vaccine requirements "are no longer serving the purpose of increasing uptake". 

Costs laid out by ACT include individuals feeling excluded from society, organisations losing critical workers, and a "wider impact on social cohesion". 

"It is difficult to justify a vaccination mandate purely on the grounds that it reduces hospitalisation risk for unvaccinated people themselves and thus pressure on the health system. This effect has already reached saturation. 

"Unless a new requirement for boosters is introduced, mandating is having negligible effect on vaccine uptake."

There is a requirement for some mandated workers to receive their booster shots by specific dates, but this doesn't currently cover a number of workplaces, like food and drink businesses, close contact services or tertiary education workers. 

"Government vaccination mandates have previously been justified on the grounds of reducing the likelihood of disease spread, but the evidence for this is limited.

"ACT says employers should be allowed, on an employer-by-employer basis, to set their own vaccination policies in light of the evidence."

One option, it says, would be a requirement for employees to have regular RATs, "which give greater reassurance that a person does not have COVID-19 than vaccination status". 

The party says the rollout of boosters has "clear benefits" due to evidence they reduce hospitalisation from Omicron. It says boosters are inexpensive by modern standards.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week said vaccine mandates and passes would be eased after Omicron has peaked in roughly three to six weeks. Mandates would remain for health workers and those working with vulnerable people, but other sectors would be up for review. 

Now is not the time though, she said. 

"We're giving a very clear indication but based on what we're seeing internationally on when we believe that will be able to occur. But I can tell you it's not as you're on the upside of a growing outbreak. It's when you come down that it'll be safe to do that."

ACT's paper also considered the limitations the traffic light system places on gathering sizes. 

It argues that "in an environment where a large number of people have the virus, there are more exposure events and a single exposure event will make less difference when they are many".

"The Government has dashed large events and hospitality businesses at enormous cost with little consideration for what the benefits might be."

Without the benefits being clarified, ACT says the traffic light system should be dumped.