Easing of NZ restrictions to begin ‘well beyond’ omicron peak, says Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ... "We are predicting cases will continue to double every three to four days." Image: RNZ Pool

RNZ News

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the omicron outbreak is likely to peak in Aotearoa New Zealand in three to six weeks.

At that point, she says, the country will move down the traffic light settings, easing off gathering limits.

“We are predicting cases will continue to double every three to four days … it’s likely then that very soon we will all know people who have covid, or we will potentially get it ourselves,” Ardern says.

She says there are three reasons that is no longer as scary a prospect as it used to be.

“Firstly, we are highly vaccinated, and that happened before omicron set in.”

Secondly she said that meant omicron would be a mild to moderate illness, and boosters made hospitalisation 10 times less likely.

Third, public health measures like masks, gathering limits and vaccine passes were helping slow down the spread to ensure everyone who needed a hospital bed can get it.

The plan is working
“So far, that plan is working. We have 46 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 367 in New South Wales and 664 in Victoria at the same point in the outbreak. Our hospitalisations too are well below Australian states at a similar time.”

Ardern said cases were likely to peak in mid- to late March, some three to six weeks away.

At that point a rapid decline, followed by cases stabilising at a lower level was likely.

Ardern said at that point the traffic light system could change, because it meant public health measures used to protect the health system could be eased off.

She said vaccine passes had been necessary as the “least bad option” but they had always been temporary.

After we come through a wave and a peak of omicron, many unvaccinated people would have been exposed to covid-19.

She says coming through the peak would allow the government to ease mandates in places where they were less likely to impact on vulnerable people.

“They will remain important in some areas though, for some time.”

Beyond omicron … the easing of covid restrictions. Video: RNZ News

Mandates to remain in some areas
Mandates were likely to remain for some areas — particularly sections of the healthcare workforce — but there would be a narrowing of where they were required, she said.

She said it was hard to set a date, but the government needed to ensure the country was  “well beyond the peak” and that the pressure on the health system was manageable.

She said the reasons not to do away with the traffic light system entirely was so the country was prepared for new variants and potential future waves, and the coming of winter at the same time as flu returns.

“To summarise then, the coming weeks. Covid will increase, and rapidly. There will be disruption and pressure from omicron. We must brace through the next six weeks, but we can do so knowing the future with fewer restrictions is near because that has always been the course we have chartered,” Ardern said.

She said that as the country reached the peak and started to come down New Zealanders could all move towards a “new normal” they can all live with.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has outlined new financial supports to help businesses impacted by the red settings.

High daily cases continue
Daily covid-19 cases continued to increase dramatically over the weekend, reaching a new high of 2522 on Sunday — with two new deaths — and remaining above 2300 today.

The high case load has also led to an increase in related hospitalisations, putting strain on the health system which is already seeing some patients spending up to 36 hours in emergency departments, often waiting for hours in corridors.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said there had also been two covid-19 related deaths as well as 2365 new community cases.

“Sadly, we are today reporting the death of a patient at Middlemore Hospital.”

A patient in their 70s at Auckland City Hospital also died following a diagnosis of Covid-19, the ministry said.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with both patients’ family and friends.”

There are 116 people in hospital today – one in Northland, 20 in North Shore, 34 in Middlemore, 47 in Auckland, one in Tauranga, 12 in Waikato and one in Tairāwhiti.

There is one case in ICU or HDU.

The average age of the current hospitalisations is 58.

Ardern’s message to protesters
Ardern said she had a final message for those occupying the lawns of Parliament: “Everyone is over covid. No one wants to live with rules or restrictions, but had we not been willing to work together to protect one another then we would have all been worse off as individuals, including losing people we love.

“That hasn’t happened here for the most part and that is a fact worth celebrating, rather than protesting.

“We all want to go back to the way life was, and we will, I suspect sooner than you think. But when that happens it will be because easing restrictions won’t compromise the life of thousands of people — not because you demand it.

“Now is not the time to dismantle our hard work and preparation, to remove our armour just as the battle begins.”

Ardern said she still had confidence in the police commissioner and “the enormous job” he and all police did every day, including on the forecourt of Parliament right now.

Asked when protesters would be gone, she said enforcement of the law was a decision that lay with police, she said.

She said her speech today was “absolutely not” in response to the demands of the protesters.

‘Bullying’ and ‘harassment’
She said the protesters had been engaging in illegal activity that bordered on and demonstrated “bullying” and “harassment” of Wellingtonians, and she found the opposition calls for more details on lowering restrictions “quite upsetting to see they now seem to be responding and sympathising with the protesters”.

She said no one should have to put up with having human waste thrown at them, as police say happened this morning.

This morning she again urged protesters at Parliament to go home.

Police early today moved to contain the convoy protest — which has now been at Parliament for two weeks — by installing concrete barriers to prevent more vehicles from entering the area.

A researcher today warned that the continued presence of far-right elements among the protesters risked greater radicalisation, and possible violence.

Ardern has maintained there will be no engagement with the protesters, and although ACT leader David Seymour spoke to some of their representatives last week, all parties have since signed a letter from the Speaker saying there would be no dialogue from politicians until disruptive and threatening behaviour was brought to an end.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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