Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's 'simple request' to Kiwis as cases surge, addresses concerns over 'red'

The Prime Minister is pleading with New Zealanders to mask-up, isolate if required, and get vaccinated, something she says "not everyone is necessarily following through on".

Jacinda Ardern's latest reminder to Kiwis comes as a fresh wave of COVID-19 starts to have a serious impact on the health system. The Ministry of Health on Sunday reported a "significant increase" in hospitalisations and warned of "increased demand" for services.

She continues to say a move to the 'red' traffic light setting wouldn't make a "marked difference", but that people can take action "at a personal level".

"That's why we're asking, even if you've had COVID, that doesn't mean that you should not wear a mask. We know that you can also suffer reinfection. So it is about just that continued importance and simplicity of that messaging: Wear a mask, get a booster," Ardern told RNZ on Monday morning.

She also made that "simple request" on TVNZ's Breakfast show and said they're measures not everyone is currently taking up.

"We have a number of measures that other countries don't continue to use and they are, of course, mask-use, the fact that we continue to isolate cases and their family members and, of course, we are seeking those over 50 to get their booster.

"Those three things make a huge difference. Not everyone is necessarily following through on those."

"Even if you've had COVID, that doesn't mean that you should not wear a mask."
"Even if you've had COVID, that doesn't mean that you should not wear a mask." Photo credit: Getty Images.

The Ministry of Health said on Sunday that the seven-day rolling average of community cases had hit 9000. A number of modellers last week predicted daily case numbers could return to being above 20,000 and that tougher restrictions may be necessary. 

Ardern was asked on RNZ why New Zealand isn't currently at the 'red' setting.

"We predict roughly up to half of our population has had COVID now. Secondly, we are dealing with a highly transmissible [BA.4 and BA.5 subvairants]," she explained.

"The one difference between red and where we are now, or the major difference, is gathering limits. The view of our team who we have constantly look at our systems is that those red settings would not at this point make a marked difference."

She also noted that many of the recent COVID cases have been among the elderly, who are less likely to be attending events where gathering limits would have an impact.

"What does [make a difference] is vaccination rates and that's where I'd ask over 50s eligible to have that additional booster. If you haven't recently had a COVID infection, please go and get your booster if you're in that age group."

Second boosters are available in Australia for those aged over 30. Whether New Zealand also dropped the age of eligibility was a decision "for experts", Ardern said, not politicians. However, she did say the current age threshold is lower than in many other countries.

In its latest update on Sunday, the Ministry of Health said the increase in hospitalisations "emphasises the importance of everybody doing the basics well". 

"In particular, people who are unwell should stay home, take a rapid antigen test (RAT) and upload the result on MyCovidRecord, and isolate if positive or while still symptomatic. 

"Everyone should use a mask where required and especially where they may be in contact with vulnerable people – a good rule of thumb is to use a mask in all indoor places outside of your home."

Last week, COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall told the Health Select Committee that the traffic light system - or the COVID Protection Framework - was being kept under review with the possibility of tweaks.

"At this setting in orange, we have available the most effective prevention methods which are masks and vaccines… I want to make it very clear that our emphasis is on these sorts of measures that we currently have in place in orange and looking comprehensively at whether they can be improved."

She previously told Newshub that decisions on traffic light settings are made on the basis of advice from the Ministry of Health. Officials' reviews of the settings included looking at "the capacity of the health sector and its workforce, the transmissibility and severity of the COVID-19 variants circulating community, scenario modelling and daily case numbers".

There's no Cabinet meeting set down for Monday, but Ardern told RNZ "we do have a weekly COVID call in which we check in on the health system".

"I absolutely acknowledge it is a very challenging time for our health system, including for our hospital network at present."

Health workers are currently facing increased pressure due to the combination of COVID-19 and the flu in the community, as well as staff shortages.