20 Jan 2022

Government 'scrambling' over Omicron - National Party leader Christopher Luxon

4:49 pm on 20 January 2022

National's leader Chris Luxon says the government has no plan for tackling Omicron, and decisions today show Labour "took a month off".

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National leader Chris Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

This afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Cabinet's decision to move Northland into orange from midnight tonight.

She said that if Omicron was found to be transmitting in the community beyond border-related cases, all of New Zealand would move to red within 48 hours, and not go into a lockdown.

She also signalled further changes including a "graduated system" for isolation would be announced next week once the details were finalised.

Speaking from Nelson, Luxon said more rapid antigen tests were needed, and the government needed to focus on getting hospitals prepared.

"You can talk about things but is it actually happening on the ground? We don't have a single extra ICU bed than we had at the beginning of this thing and yet New South Wales has actually doubled their ICU beds.

"We have 4.6 million tests - less than one per Kiwi - and we need tens of millions of these ... why can't I buy a rapid antigen test in a supermarket or in lots of different places, like you can in every other country in the world?"

The traffic light system and the logic behind movements between the red, orange and green settings were confusing, he said,

"We've gone from alert levels, we've gone to steps, we've gone to traffic light systems, and now we're going to an adjusted traffic light system. And it's unclear what the criteria are for what determines when we move up or when we move down.

"If we thought that red was for an overwhelmed healthcare system which is what's on the actual framework, is that the right place for us to be ... what's the overarching plan?"

"We did 2020 I thought very well as a country and the government did a fair job - a good job, and I think it's important to say that - but 2021 was a shambles and we failed to prepare for Omicron and for Delta, and for any other variants that come."

He said the government needed to get home isolation in place as quickly as possible, and the government's decision to delay the next MIQ booking lottery was heartless.

"We need to be able to say if you're double vaxxed and boosted, you've got a negative test, and you're prepared to home isolate I think there's a way we can bring that forward ... once it's in the community the profile changes again."

In an earlier written statement, he said the threat of Omicron was apparent in December but "nothing seems to have happened in the last month to prepare New Zealand. Instead Jacinda Ardern and her government took a month off".

"Once again the government is scrambling. When Delta hit last August, they developed a response on the fly and now history is repeating itself," he said.

New Zealand had been slow on boosters and vaccines for 5-11 year olds, he said, and was slow again on rapid antigen tests (RATs).

"The PM revealed that New Zealand has only 4.6 million rapid tests in the country right now. That's less than one per person. That is a stunning indictment on the government's lazy lack of planning."

He said the 2020 playbook would not work against Omicron, and companies' requests to import RATs were being stalled at the Ministry of Health for weeks at a time when more were needed.

"The government has done little other than to make them available for the unvaccinated and for some selected employers. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister still can't outline how they will be used, when they will be available, and what isolation rules will be in place. She even thinks our current contact tracing system will work against Omicron."

New Zealand deserved better, Luxon said.

Luxon was chosen as National's leader at the end of November after Judith Collins was removed from the role by the party caucus.

Luxon himself is double vaccinated and boosted and advised anyone who could to do the same.

"It's really important, I just encourage everybody, go get boosted immediately, as soon as you possibly can please. And likewise for parents think deeply about whether you can get your 5-12 year olds vaccinated as well."

'Nothing has been done' - ACT

ACT leader David Seymour similarly said the government had done nothing to prepare for Omicron.

"I listened closely to the prime minister for a plan against Omicron and all I heard was the sound of crickets," he said.

"Actually, I admire Jacinda Ardern's guts for getting up and saying that with a straight face. They've got nothing in their response today that was not known five weeks ago.

David Seymour

David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Now, I understand everyone's had a long year in 2021 and everyone needed a break, but Omicron does not observe Christmas the way our prime minister does, which seems to be very very relaxed."

He did not think anyone believed the prime minister would not bring back lockdowns if hospitals were overwhelmed in the face of Omicron.

The government should be focusing on targeting boosters to vulnerable New Zealanders, and there were other rules that were unclear, Seymour said.

"We have made none of the kinds of preparations around testing availability, around targeting of boosters, around rules of isolation for people who are infected - you name the topic, nothing has been done.

"There was nothing new in today's announcement other than 'we will move to red', which will have a mild effect in the sense that it will stop gatherings of more than 100 people. And that will have an effect but probably not much."

"Instead of a plan, we've announced a plan to make a plan. That's the point that we've got to with this government's preparation even after five weeks of watching Omicron raging around the rest of the world."

There were far too many things left completely unsaid, according to Seymour, and he thought New Zealanders were left with more questions about what the response would be than answers.

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