Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Strategy in spotlight as Ayesha Verrall, Dr Ashley Bloomfield outline plans

Future stages in the Omicron pandemic response are to be outlined at the Beehive this afternoon.

The announcement is largely expected to explain strategies for combating an anticipated surge in Omicron cases.

Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall and director general of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield will address media at 2pm.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday foreshadowed the press conference, saying it would likely expand on Covid-19 testing mechanisms, especially rapid antigen tests.

This afternoon’s conference also follows an announcement yesterday on new face mask guidance.

Ardern yesterday said makeshift face coverings would be discouraged, and masks would be increasingly required at restaurants and on public school bus trips.

Some restaurant owners have derided the new rules. Others have voiced concern the changes will put staff under more pressure from cantankerous or confused customers.

“Trying to keep up with all the rules is tricky. Then I have to educate my customers every day about it,” Devonport cafe owner Peter Reeves told the Herald.

But epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker said the new rules should go further, and the Government ought to clarify mask standards and improve access to quality masks.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has indicated today’s conference will also discuss the distribution of rapid test kits to utility, supply chain, and essential transport sectors.

Some businesses have told the Herald the Government was seizing private supplies of rapid antigen tests to bolster its own stocks.

The broad issue underlying today’s announcement is the three-step strategy the Government plans to deploy.

The current stage is similar to suppression efforts used against the Alpha and Delta variants.

But the latter stages are largely a recognition of Omicron’s transmissibility, and reflect an admission the variant will be virtually impossible to eliminate.

Ultimately, the third step accommodates the chances New Zealand may start recording more than 1000 daily cases, which is vastly more than for previous Covid-19 strains.

But nuances of the second or transitional stage, and the final stage, have not yet been made public in great detail.

In a Yale University article published yesterday, public health professor Dr Albert Ko said Omicron appeared to be twice as transmissible as Delta.

Hospitalisation and death rates from Omicron appeared to be significantly lower than from Delta, but high case numbers could still place pressure on hospitals.

And as existing vaccines are thought to be less effective at thwarting Omicron than at stopping Delta, the Government has encouraged people to get booster shots.

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