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PM Jacinda Ardern announces changes to traffic light system, provides Omicron update

Radio New Zealand logo Radio New Zealand 20/01/2022

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced Northland will join the rest of the country in the orange setting from 11.59pm tonight, and signalled plans for Omicron.

Cabinet ministers met yesterday to assess the traffic light settings across the country, including whether Northland will drop to the orange setting.

Ardern, speaking from New Plymouth at the Labour Party caucus retreat, announced this afternoon the region would change settings tonight.

"Vaccination rates have continued to increase in Northland and are now at 89 percent first dose. The easing of the Auckland boundary over summer did not drive an increase in cases so we believe it is safe for Northland to join the rest of the country at orange," she said.

Ardern said the spread of Covid-19 over summer was limited because of exceptional vaccination rates, public health teams continuing to stamp out cases, and the Covid protection framework working as expected.

She said this leaves us in one of the best positions in the world to fight Omicron.

"Omicron is more transmissible, that is going to make it harder to keep it out, but it will also make it more challenging to control once it arrives."

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Ardern also announced that if Omicron transmission was detected in the community, all of New Zealand would move to red within 24 to 48 hours.

"We won't be able to stop Omicron entering the community, but we can use tools to try and slow it down," she said. "We need to be on guard, and ready.

"New Zealand has done an incredible job in reducing Delta case numbers especially in light of the Auckland boundary lifting last month ... by staying at orange we will be able to hold onto these gains while we continue to make preparations for Omicron.

"When we have evidence of Omicron transmitting in the community we won't use lockdowns, instead the whole country will move into red.

"It is important to remember that red does not mean lockdowns, or regional boundaries, and business remains open."

Ardern said people can also vaccinate to protect against the virus, with 5-11 year olds able to be vaccinated and boosters protecting against severity of the illness.

Ardern said that, as before, "when Covid changes, we change".

She said overseas evidence showed it could take as little as 14 days for Omicron cases to grow from hundreds to thousands.

"The red setting allows businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but includes mask wearing and gathering restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus and keep pressure off our health system."

"For the most part, people will be well enough to stay at home with whānau. So think about what you'd need to stay home for that period."

She said Omicron for most people would be a manageable illness, but not for everyone. New Zealand will continue to work hard to keep cases as low as possible.

Evidence also showed the effectiveness of booster doses, she said, in protecting against the variant, and they would be important for reducing the spread when Omicron arrived.

"Not many countries have had a chance to roll out a booster before Omicron hits, we have, and we are. It's an opportunity we need everyone to take up."

Genome sequencing today confirmed an Auckland Airport worker who tested positive for Covid-19 has the Omicron variant of the virus.

It comes as a household contact of an MIQ worker with Omicron was also confirmed to have the variant.

Ardern said as before people who were close contacts of cases would need to isolate.

"The government is working to provide the healthcare and social services as needed, but most people will be able to be cared for at home."

The government is also doing work to bring in more frequent testing in health settings as is seen in countries overseas, she said.

"We have capacity to undertake 40,000 tests a day without putting strain our system. We know that with wider spread, this system will need to change though."

Several principles for testing in the future have been identified. They will be focused on symptomatic people, vulnerable people, essential workers and close contacts. Testing will be free and available locally.

Rapid antigen tests will also be available more widely.

They would be useful when case numbers of Covid are high, Ardern said.

"Currently we have 4.6 million rapid antigen tests in the country and tens of millions of rapid antigen tests on order."

Ardern clarified that rapid antigen tests would also be available to the community for free, alongside PCR tests.

Ardern said every day without community spread is a day we can use to prepare, and everyone needs to think about how they can prepare.

Families should think about what they might need at home if they need to isolate, and businesses should think about how they can support people to get boosters.

"It is difficult to model. We know enough to know though that boosters are really important, and making sure we move quickly is really important."

On plans for reopening the border, Ardern said no discussions have been had yet about changing the plans. At this point the status quo remains.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it's important to note that the pause is for bookings in March and April - not January and February. He said that does not suggest there will be no MIQ bookings for March and April, just that they are not being made yet.

Ardern used her first speech of the year to warn New Zealand's Covid-19 case numbers in 2022 would be unlike anything seen here before.

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