COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern outlines how New Zealand is preparing for winter, warns of new, different variants', influenza's return

Omicron will not be the last COVID-19 variant New Zealand faces and nor will it be the only illness our country's health system will have to handle this coming winter season, the Prime Minister says. 

Parliament returned on Tuesday after the summer hiatus with just half of the usual 120 MPs back in the socially-distanced House, adhering to the red-light settings. The politicians gathered as anti-vax mandate protesters swarmed Parliament's front lawn and surrounding streets, calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions and also taking issue with other Government initiatives. 

Jacinda Ardern began the session by laying out the Government's agenda for 2022. The Prime Minister's statement canvassed a range of topics, including COVID-19, housing, crime, climate change and education.

In it, Ardern told MPs that advice from experts is that Omicron "will not be the last variant" and New Zealand can expect "to face new and different variants this year". 

"While the timing, severity or transmissibility is beyond our control, the Government will continue to strengthen our health system and critical public services so we are in the strongest position to deal with whatever the pandemic produces," Ardern said. 

The Prime Minister said that means taking pressure off the health system during winter, including by delivering an influenza immunisation programme to maximise uptake for at-risk Kiwis.

"The Ministry of Health and District Health Boards are preparing to reduce the impact of seasonal illnesses on our health system," Ardern said. 

"As New Zealand reconnects with the world, seasonal influenza will likely re-emerge this year. Increasing influenza vaccination rates in 2022 will be important to ease unnecessary pressures on the public health system through decreasing the winter burden."

Following Ardern's speech, Health Minister Andrew Little said the Government will fund a quarter of a million more free flu vaccines for this year's winter campaign. This means up to 2 million Kiwis will be eligible for free flu vaccinations this year. 

"The efforts of the team of 5 million have helped prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19," he said.

"Now, as we prepare to reconnect to the world, we can expect to see more seasonal flu in New Zealand. Vaccinating more people from the flu will save lives, preserve capacity in our hospitals, and is a part of our plan to get through the COVID-19 pandemic."

The flu vaccine can be administered at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine, Little said. There doesn't need to be a gap between the COVID-19 vaccine and any other vaccine, other than the Zostavax shingles vaccine.

Little said the Ministry of Health and Pharmac are updating the eligibility criteria for free flu vaccines with a focus on reducing the age of eligibility for at-risk populations and potentially including a wider range of young people. They are currently free for pregnant women, over 65s, and people with certain medical conditions.

Omicron won't be the last variant New Zealand faces, Ardern says.
Omicron won't be the last variant New Zealand faces, Ardern says. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Due to the widespread use of masking, social distancing, and New Zealand having its borders mostly closed, there has been far less influenza circulating around the country than what was seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Influenza virus circulation in the community in New Zealand was non-existent during the 2021 winter season," ESR's 2021 annual influenza report says.

"Throughout the surveillance period hospital-based severe acute respiratory illness (SARI) incidence rates also remained very low compared to historical rates seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Similarly, Europe also saw less of the virus last year due to health measures in place for COVID-19.

However, when it began reopening in the latter months of 2021 - before closing back up again due to Omicron - influenza was found at a higher-than-expected rate. Forty-three cases were recorded in Europe's ICUs in the last week of the year, far below pre-pandemic rates of 400, but a substantial increase from earlier in the month.

From February 27, New Zealand will no longer require Kiwis coming from Australia to enter MIQ, with them instead spending time isolating at home. Kiwis from other parts of the world can bypass MIQ from mid-March, while tourists from Australia and countries with visa waivers will return by July, while the border will fully reopen in October. 

By the time visitors start coming to Aotearoa, the Government expects the cases of COVID-19 they will bring won't add significant additional risk. This is because there will likely already be a large number of Omicron cases here. 

In her statement on Tuesday, Ardern said other Government initiatives will also assist in protecting the health system from being overloaded. That includes the extension of paid sick leave to ten days.

"This crucial investment will help people take sick leave through winter rather than working with illness and helps to reduce in workplace transmission of seasonal illnesses," the Prime Minister told MPs.

She also assured parents that the Government is committed to keeping schools and early learning services open, with closures only seen as a "last resort due to a significant outbreak in a school or service, staff absences that make it unsafe to operate or a local lockdown". She said health measures, vaccination, good hygiene and maximising natural ventilation will help prevent potential transmission. 

"The latest evidence shows that school closures are finely balanced. They can cause significant indirect harm to children, including widening educational inequities, poorer mental health, behavioural difficulties, social isolation, family stress, family violence and food insecurity. 

"They also have a disproportionate impact on Māori and Pacific children and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds."

The Healthy Homes Initiative, Healthy Home Standards for rentals and Government investment in public housing are also actions Ardern outlined as being critical to the wellbeing of Kiwis this winter. 

The Prime Minister continued to advocate for people to get their boosters when eligible, describing it as the "most significant thing you can do to protect your family, friends and our nurses, doctors, paramedics and all our health workers".

While New Zealand moved to red-light settings on January 23 after cases of the highly-transmissible variant were recorded in the community, we've yet to see the explosion in cases and hospitalisations experienced in other countries. 

On Tuesday, 202 new community cases were recorded and 14 people were in hospital. There are currently 2707 active cases in New Zealand, with Omicron the dominant variant. 

Modelling from the University of Auckland carried out before Omicron was detected in Aotearoa and released on Tuesday found that peak hospital admissions could range from 200 to 800 cases a day, with peak demand for hospital beds from 800 to 3300 depending on transmission rates. That assumes a high booster uptake.