New Zealand delays border reopening in bid to strengthen defences against Omicron

New Zealand has announced a suite of measures to strengthen its defence against the Omicron variant, including pushing back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening to the end of February.

The Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said the reopening delay will be disappointing for those who had made travel plans over summer, but added that waiting until the end of February would increase New Zealand’s overall protection and slow Omicron’s spread.

“Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls and we have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary,” Hipkins said.

Verlede maand, the government had announced a staged reopening of the international border, which has been closed since March 2020. It was set to reopen to Nieu-Seeland citizens and visa holders coming from Australia from 17 Januarie, then from the rest of the world, and finally to all other vaccinated visitors from the end of April.

Hipkins said: “All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible Covid-19 variant yet and public health advice says that soon, every case that comes into MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine facilities] will be Omicron.”

Travellers returning to the country will now be required to provide a pre-departure Covid test 48 hours before travel, eerder as 72 ure, and the government is temporarily lengthening time in MIQ from seven to ten days.

It will also accelerate the booster vaccine rollout by shortening the gap between second and third shots, betekenis 82% of the vaccinated population will be eligible for it by the end of February.

Omicron has emerged at a time when New Zealand’s daily community case numbers are trending downwards – 28 announced on Tuesday – and as the country surpasses its 90% double vaccination rate for the eligible population (12 years and over). Daar is 22 Omicron cases in managed isolation but none so far detected in the community. The new “traffic light” system to help contain the virus has been operating for just under thee weeks, and was designed to signal an end to lockdowns, in favour of other measures such as limits on gathering sizes, and restrictions for unvaccinated people.

“In moving to the traffic light system, we signalled that we would be adjusting to more of a reactive stance when it came to protective measures and would apply them when case numbers grew and the health system came under pressure,” Hipkins said on Tuesday.

“Omicron has changed that. When it does arrive, we expect that it will spread fast, and that’s what we’re seeing in other places. To slow that spread, we may use the red traffic light settings earlier on. That will give us the best chance to avoid returning to more restrictive alert level settings.”

He said it was not the government’s intention to move to lockdowns unless absolutely necessary, for example if a widespread outbreak put the health system under considerable strain.

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