23 Mar 2022

Covid-19 measures: Isolation period, vaccine passes may need to be stricter - modeller

9:28 am on 23 March 2022

Isolation may need to return to 10 days and vaccine passes may need to be expanded to include the booster shot, a modeller says.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 03: (EDITORS NOTE: This image has been altered: Personal information of subject has been removed.)

Photo: 2021 Getty Images

The future of the country's Covid-19 restrictions will be revealed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 11am today.

This comes as latest figures indicate the current Covid-19 outbreak is past its peak in Auckland and is slowing down in the rest of the country.

But Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said at his media briefing yesterday that New Zealanders need to be prepared for further Omicron waves and new variants.

Te Pūnaha Matatini project lead Dr Dion O'Neale said the current framework was designed around reducing transmission with Delta for which it gave good protection.

But that is not the case with the Omicron outbreak where three vaccine doses are needed to reduce transmission.

Good mask wearing, isolating and rapid antigen testing have also become key measures for controlling the spread of Omicron.

While some of those measures may need to be stepped up, it leaves room to relax in any other areas, he told Morning Report.

Self-isolating has been reduced to seven days in the main to allow people to remain at work and it might be better to lengthen it to 10 days, Dr O'Neale said.

"We'd hope that some of those protections that we took off as we moved up through our case numbers ... as it becomes effective for them to come back into play again that we put them back on and so that would mean probably pushing that isolation period back out to 10 days or using a negative test to return situation [to work]."

Luxon disagrees

National Party leader Christopher Luxon told Morning Report other countries were working within a range of five to seven days' isolation.

"The broader thing we're saying is that we are getting to a place in New Zealand now where we are trying to get back to some sense of normalcy.

"Omicron is a different rise and as a result we now need to start removing the restrictions."

From a health risk point of view, the US health protection agency Centre for Disease Control is recommending five days as an acceptable isolation period, he said.

"Let's be a little bit practical about it, if it's five versus seven ... those two days make a difference."

Meanwhile, Dr O'Neale also advocated more use of the more reliable PCR tests again.

He said it might be "incredibly unpopular", but vaccine passes could be expanded to include the booster dose although it was not the only approach.

"If people aren't willing to do that then we want to take some other preventative option instead to keep people safe."

Asked about the prospect of the government ditching vaccine passes and increasing the size of gatherings, Dr O'Neale said it might send a false message to people that things are safe "which is absolutely not the case".

"We're still in a situation with very high infection numbers out there."

Even if case numbers dropped from 20,000 (which was yesterday's new cases number) to 5000, people need to remain cautious about the infection risk.

"What we'd hope is if people are still recognising that risk you can remove that two-dose vaccine pass limit without having a huge change if people are remaining cautious and other measures are put in place to try and mitigate some of that infection risk."

However, Luxon said scanning and vaccine passes should be scrapped, and from 13 April mandates should start being withdrawn and the traffic light framework should be dropped altogether.

"It's not going to be sensible when you've got Australians coming over and you're opening up the country to tourists and they don't have vaccine passes that enable them to get in and out of restaurants or cafes."

Regular rapid antigen tests and mask use in indoor settings will be needed for a period of time, he said.

Call for more funding for public health

Emergency medicine specialist Dr John Bonning said the country's emergency departments are under significant pressure although the pandemic has just added extra stress in hospitals that were already under pressure.

Dr Bonning agreed that Auckland has passed the peak of Omicron and while the rest of the country is still to go through the worst, it is time to change tack on public health measures.

"It's not about saying let it rip but it's about building on the success of our protection against the pandemic but ... starting to think about well this is actually more than just the pandemic we need to think about.

"We need more resources across the healthcare system for emergency and acute patients."

Dr Bonning did not want to speculate on what public health measures the government should drop although the isolation rules had affected health workforces.

"But we need to make sure that people are safe, patients are safe, and doctors are safe so perhaps some relaxation of the isolation rules, the contact."

Dr Bonning added that some good progress had been made with infection control over the last few years.

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