Chris Hipkins warns COVID-19 'pandemic is far from over,' winter could bring second peak

COVID-19 response minister Chris Hipkins has warned the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and winter could bring a second peak of cases. 

Speaking on Newshub Nation Hipkins said as the country heads into winter the Government could look at escalating the response should there be a second wave. 

"We have always been really clear as we head into winter if we do see another peak in COVID-19 cases we may have to escalate our response," Hipkins told Newshub Nation. 

On Friday there were 7347 new COVID-19 cases in New Zealand, with 363 people hospitalised and 24 deaths of people with the virus. 

The new infection rate is plateauing around that number, not rising or falling by a significant amount. 

Hipkins said the forecasting is showing the new cases should trend down, but what is unknown are the reinfection rates. There are anecdotal reports of people being reinfected earlier than the believed three-month immunity period. 

Keeping the COVID-19 death toll down was one of the reasons often cited for putting New Zealand into such strict lockdowns in the first 18 months of the pandemic. 

There have been daily deaths reported since the outbreak of the Omicron variant in New Zealand but Hipkins defended accusations the rules were relaxed too soon. 

The Minister told Newshub Nation the mortality rate during the outbreak had risen above what you would expect to see, but it was not a huge leap and it is being monitored.  

He rejected that COVID-19 deaths were now an acceptable part of the response. 

"I would never say COVID-19-related deaths are acceptable. But there is a reality about the fact that as we move from an environment where we were completely eliminating the virus and not having it circulating at all to one where we are seeing COVID-19 circulating in the community, it was going to have an impact and it is having an impact."

The Omicron outbreak meant many Kiwis got their booster jab three months after their second vaccination, down from the original six months the Government recommended. 

Many of those boosters are now waning. Hipkins said the Government was looking at the ongoing protection and there would likely be a fourth does, but only for the most vulnerable.  

New Zealand's border opened to overseas visitors for the first time this week since the pandemic closed them. Unlike countries such as Australia and the UK though visitors here still need to do a COVID-19 test before they can board the plane - something the airlines and tourist industry want stopped. 

Hipkins said there should be certainty around that in the next few weeks.