11 Apr 2023

Covid-19: Cabinet to consider whether to relax last restrictions

9:10 am on 11 April 2023
MP Dr Ayesha Verrall speaks to media at a post-cabinet press conference

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said the government will consider the latest health advice. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Cabinet ministers will on Tuesday consider whether to relax the few remaining Covid-19 restrictions, with an announcement expected this week.

While business leaders are keen to see them go amid labour shortages, health experts want them to stay - and the Prime Minister has suggested ditching mandatory isolation could backfire on bosses wanting staff back on-site quickly.

Most pandemic rules were scrapped in September last year, but a mandatory seven-day isolation period remains for those who test positive for the virus.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall last week told reporters the government would weigh up the latest public health advice, as well as the state of the health system heading into winter.

Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope said ministers should also take international norms into account, pointing out many other countries had abandoned their isolation requirements.

"Our self-isolation requirements are longer [than other countries] and are still mandatory," he said.

"In other countries, there is guidance around self-isolation, but it's essentially no longer mandatory. We should certainly look at those examples."

The United Kingdom dumped its five-day isolation requirement more than a year ago, and Australia did the same in October, except for workers in high-risk settings.

Both nations saw case numbers rise over the following couple of months, but stabilised at comparatively lower levels over their respective summers (though prevalence surveys suggest the UK figures are vastly undercounted).

Across Europe, self-isolation is advised but not compulsory in France, Spain, Greece and Portugal. A five-day mandatory isolation period continues in Italy and some regions of Germany.

Hope told RNZ the isolation rules were putting a strain on the already tight workforce.

"Most employers are really keen for any of their staff who might have Covid-19 to stay at home until they feel better, but the reality is mandatory self-isolation requirements are probably no longer necessary."

Chris Hipkins told RNZ's Morning Report on Tuesday it would be a "carefully balanced decision" whether to drop mandatory isolation.

"We have to consider all of the ins and outs of removing restrictions, and the risk associated with that. And we've also then got to look at… the benefits of keeping restrictions in place as," the prime minister said.

"I think there actually are now very few restrictions related to Covid-19 still in place, and one of the remaining restrictions is that if you have Covid-19, we ask you to stay home for an isolation period.

"I've heard businesses, for example, saying that that has an impact on labour availability... That said, people going to work with Covid-19 can have a labour market implication as well. We saw last winter what happened when students when children went to school with Covid-19 - it took out a significant proportion of the teaching workforce, which then meant a lot of kids couldn't go to school, which meant a lot of parents had to stay home. We've got to weigh up all those things as well."

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Health Minister Ayesha Verrall with Dr Andrew Narayan (centre) who gave them their vaccinations at Queen Street Medical Centre in Upper Hutt.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Health Minister Ayesha Verrall with Dr Andrew Narayan (centre) who gave them their vaccinations at Queen Street Medical Centre in Upper Hutt. Photo: Soumya Bhamidipati

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker has urged Cabinet to keep the isolation requirements in place. He said vigilance towards Covid-19 was still required as it was the infectious disease killing and hospitalising the most people in Aotearoa.

There were currently 220 in hospital due to Covid-19 and nine in ICU. The present daily average is about four deaths a day.

Speaking to RNZ, Auckland University associate professor and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles suggested New Zealand adopt a test-to-release strategy. She said that would allow people who were not infectious to come out of isolation earlier.

"I don't want to get ahead of any decisions that we've yet to take, but all of those sorts of options are things that we've got to look at the pros and cons of," said Hipkins. "I don't want to get a hit of any decision-making. I'm not announcing the decisions that haven't yet been taken."

Hipkins said the state of the health system would play a part in the decision.

"We want to make sure that our health system is there for New Zealanders who need it and making sure the health system doesn't become overwhelmed by Covid-19, as we've seen in other parts of the world. That is certainly something that, you know, we factor into our decision-making when it comes to Covid-19."

For more than a year, the ACT Party has called for the end of the mandatory seven-day isolation period, calling it unnecessary and unworkable.

Both National and the Green Party have deferred to the health advice. The former's current position is to keep mandatory isolation, but cut it to five days and also have a test-to-release plan.

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