With the announcement of New Zealand moving to the Red traffic light settings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also explained that the country would move through three separate ‘stages’ for the Omicron outbreak.
These stages are unrelated to the traffic light system but will instead concern how the Government treats testing, contact tracing, and self-isolation requirements for new cases.
Ardern put the entire country into the Red setting as of 11.59pm on Sunday after a cluster of mystery Omicron cases emerged, with no known link to the border. Those cases suggested that Omicron is already circulating in Auckland and possibly Nelson/Marlborough.
How Each Phase Will Work
Ardern said the country was currently in Stage One, where it would stay while there were fewer than 1000 cases a day.
This stage was still a ‘stamp it out’ phase and would see essentially the same settings as now for cases and contacts.
That meant tests would still be done professionally rather than at home and that cases would have to isolate for 14 days. Contacts would have to isolate for 10 days. Some of those tests would be Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) but most of the test would still be the more accurate PCR tests that have been the main testing method throughout the pandemic.
“Stage Two will be a transition stage where we adjust the system to focus much more on identifying those who are at greater risk of severe illness from Omicron - which will be a smaller percentage of cases,” Ardern said.
When there were more cases, the Government would be more comfortable using more RATs – tests that are far easier to conduct but are less accurate. Ardern would not say whether the Government had considered distributing RATs to every household for free, as some other countries have done.
Then the Third Stage - when daily cases were in the thousands - would mean big changes to contact tracing, the definition of close contacts, and isolation requirements.
Other countries have had to change their self-isolation requirements as many thousands of people have contracted Omicron and crippled supply chains and other essential services.
Ardern said more details about these stages would be made public this week, but she didn’t expect the country would reach the third stage for a couple of weeks yet.
Leaders of opposition parties have called the new ‘stages’ confusing.
"The so-called stages are just a place-holder for no plan. Isolation requirements, protection of the vulnerable, getting boosters rolled out - none of that's ready," commented ACT leader David Seymour.