National would slash COVID-19 isolation to a week, give all schools rapid antigen tests for twice-weekly checks

If National was in power, the isolation period for COVID-19 cases and contacts would be slashed to a week and all schools would get rapid antigen tests for twice-weekly checks. 

National leader Christopher Luxon made the announcement in Queenstown on Tuesday speaking at Winnies, a gourmet pizza bar, as part of the second day of National's caucus retreat. 

"National would provide every school with sufficient rapid tests to conduct twice-weekly surveillance testing for all students, teachers and staff, like they're doing in New South Wales and Victoria," Luxon said.

"We also need to change isolation periods. Thousands of Kiwis will get Omicron - to keep our communities safe we need to make sure people actually go out and get tested, and this will happen less when isolation can be for up to 24 days as under the Government's current plan.

"Isolation should reduce to seven days for identified cases and close contacts - a period in line with many other countries. This will ensure we continue to slow the spread of Omicron while still allowing communities to keep functioning."

In the current Phase 1 of the Government's Omicron response, the isolation requirement for cases is 14 days and 10 days for contacts. For household contact it's up to 24 days, because they must isolate for the case's two-week period, plus an additional 10 days. 

The Government has estimated 350,000 people at once could be self-isolating during this outbreak.

Phase 2, which will come into effect when there are still "less than 1000" cases a day, according to Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, will see the isolation period for cases reduced to 10 days and seven for contacts. 

The third phase comes into play when cases are in the thousands. The definition of contacts will change to household and household-like contacts only. This will mean only the highest risk contacts will need to be isolated. But the isolation periods will remain the same.

Luxon said since the Omicron variant has arrived and case numbers are set to increase rapidly in the coming weeks and months, the "situation has changed so it is sensible to update our strategy". 

National leader Christopher Luxon speaking in Queenstown.
National leader Christopher Luxon speaking in Queenstown. Photo credit: Newshub

"We can't rely on what worked in 2020, and we certainly can't make the same mistakes the Government made in 2021 that led to an $8 billion lockdown, thousands of Kiwis not even eligible for a booster shot yet, and thousands more shut out of their own country.

"Many Kiwis will be worried. National believes we need to take steps to ensure the healthcare system isn't overwhelmed, minimise disruption caused by isolation requirements, and allow as much freedom as possible with the help of vaccine boosters and rapid antigen tests.

"We need vastly more access to rapid antigen tests. The Government should make them available in pharmacies, supermarkets and anywhere else so that all Kiwis, including students, have the ability to be regularly tested."

The Government came under fire last week amid accusations it had "commandeered" incoming stock of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests

The tests had only been available for select employers and unvaccinated people to use for travel purposes. But wider use of them was part of the Government's plan to slow down the highly infectious Omicron variant. 

However, with 22 million on order and only 14.6 million were expected to arrive in the next five weeks, the Government decided to prioritise its bulk order. 

"We have discussed with our three main suppliers, which are Abbott, Roche and Siemens, that forward orders of tests that haven't yet arrived in the country be consolidated into the Government's stock so that it is there for the whole country, including private businesses," said Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. 

Luxon said rapid tests should have been prioritised sooner. 

"Why don't you just approve the 60 suppliers in Australia?" Luxon said. "At the moment we've got less than 10 approved."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says it's because there's "a huge variation" in the accuracy of rapid antigen tests. 

"There are some real lemons out there. Some rapid antigen tests have accuracy as low as 30 percent."

He also reiterated National's stance that managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) "no longer makes sense", though the party recently dropped "now" from its "end MIQ" petition, recognising that "a short pause while Omicron was not in New Zealand was justified"

"Soon, thousands of people with Omicron will be isolating at home while fully-vaccinated Kiwi citizens who are overseas and don't have COVID are blocked from coming home," Luxon said. 

"It isn't right. We need to reopen to the world - to Kiwis first and then to others who are fully vaccinated and have had a negative rapid test.

"National would ensure we safely navigate our way through Omicron so we can start to restore our freedoms, reunite families, and address the many other long-term problems facing New Zealand."

Ardern said last week there were no plans to change the indicative dates set out for self-isolation, meaning vaccinated Kiwis arriving from Australia will be able to skip MIQ from the end of February, followed by vaccinated Kiwis from other countries, and then other visa holders. 

The exact dates are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.