Two of New Zealands most prominent Covid-19 experts have warned that the country is unprepared to prevent the health system from being overloaded by an Omicron outbreak, with likely fatal consequences.
Otago Universitys Dr Nick Wilson and Dr Michael Baker also said it was only a matter of weeks before the highly transmissible variant seeped into the community due to border failures.
Wilson said that despite New Zealands high vaccination rates, the number of adults who had received a booster dose of the vaccine essential for minimising the effects of Omicron remains dangerously low, and noted that the vaccine rollout for children between five and 11 still had not begun.
New Zealand received its first shipment of Pfizers paediatric vaccine only at the weekend, and intends to begin child vaccinations from 17 January, despite some comparable countries beginning their child vaccine rollout late last year.
Omicrons short incubation period also means New Zealands system for identifying and containing new community cases would be much less effective.
Wilson panned the countrys traffic light system which replaced the more stringent alert-level system last year as not fit for purpose with Omicron due to its tolerance for relatively significant social interaction for vaccinated people when Covid is in the community.
Baker agreed, calling for the government to rapidly reinstate an amended version of the alert level system. The traffic light system wont help us very much because it was never designed to dampen down transmission, it was only designed to nudge people towards vaccination, Baker said.
Until these weaknesses were fixed, he said, we need to hugely turn down the tap of people arriving in New Zealand. Wilson agreed: The priority is to have a tighter border so that we dont have to vaccinate kids and conduct a booster program during an outbreak.
The pair called for a significant tightening of the number of New Zealanders entering the country.
Over the weekend, 64 positive Covid cases were recorded within New Zealands oversubscribed managed isolation facilities (MIQ) for incoming travellers, many of which were expected to be Omicron.
Wilson said he was perplexed that poor ventilation and shared spaces within MIQ had not been fixed and that the resulting high risk of an Omicron outbreak was unacceptable.
To relieve the pressure on MIQ, Wilson said, the government ought to require rapid antigen testing for travellers immediately prior to allowing them on flights, and cap the number of travellers coming from high-risk countries such as the UK, where Omicron rates have skyrocketed.
Such measures would be controversial. The government is facing significant pressure from advocacy groups like Grounded Kiwis to make it easier for overseas New Zealanders to return home. The countrys borders have been shut since March 2020.
Spokesperson Martin Newell said Grounded Kiwis strongly agreed with universal rapid antigen testing for travellers and strictly limiting travellers exposure to each other. However, he emphasised that you cant deny the right of New Zealanders to be able to return to their country.
Wilson, however, said: The priority for the government has to be on protecting the 5 million New Zealanders in New Zealand.
The Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, has been approached for comment.
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