New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Covid-Zero policy is approaching its end.
Like Western Australia, New Zealand has remained relatively sheltered from the Covid pandemic due to its geography and strict border protections. Despite this, Omicron has made its way into New Zealand and the rising case numbers are expected to develop into an outbreak.
Desperate to drop case numbers back to zero, Ardern has brought in a 24-day mandatory isolation health order for household contacts.
The rule, which many have branded ‘harsh’ and ‘unworkable’, is designed to work like a mini-lockdown by completely eradicating Covid from an infected household before any of its members rejoin society.
The order comes as 84 more cases of (assumed) Omicron were recorded over the weekend, signalling the start of an outbreak. Omicron has broken through the quarantine restrictions of nearly every remaining isolated country.
A flight attendant in Auckland was among those found to be positive with Omicron. Other cases were related to wedding guests in a family where over 100 people were connected.
New Zealand has been placed on ‘red alert’.
Given the experience of other countries, it is unlikely that Ardern’s isolation requirements will stop the Omicron outbreak that is underway.
The Omicron outbreak caused Ardern to cancel her wedding to Clarke Gayford.
“I know hearing these sorts of case numbers will sound deeply concerning for people to hear. We’ll do everything that we can to slow the spread and reduce the number of cases we experience as a nation,” said Ardern. “Omicron is now in more than 80 countries around the world – by delaying its arrival here, we’ve had the time to kick off boosters, vaccinations for children and prepare.”
Positive Covid cases are required to self-isolate for two weeks while all household contacts must stay in isolation for the full 24 days, making the normal operation of life nearly impossible for working families. After two years of the pandemic interrupting both the global and domestic economy, most people cannot take 24 days off, let alone if it happens to their family more than once.
“The effect is that if you test positive, members of your household may have to isolate for 24 days. People who cannot afford that will have a strong incentive not to get tested, defeating the purpose of the policy. If the advice is taken seriously, it will cripple the health workforce and supply chains,” said David Seymour, ACT Party leader.
Australia’s experience with Omicron supports this fear, with supply chains breaking down and staff shortages causing empty shelves in supermarkets and critical staff shortages across a range of essential industries. The Australian government and several states had to redefine close contacts, shorten isolation periods, and even allow Covid positive staff members back to work.
The isolation penalties are so harsh that many fear it will lead New Zealanders to avoid getting tested, leaving the spread of Omicron unreported. If this happens, instead of slowing the spread of Omicron, more people will wander around without observing any isolation protocols at all.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Health explained that the extreme length of the isolation order was based off Japanese research that showed not only that Omicron is extremely fast to spread, but that it can remain highly infectious with a longer incubation period. This would mean that people were able to spread the virus for longer, even if they were not displaying any symptoms.
That said, the Ministry of Health is already offering workarounds, with a spokesperson telling 1News that a Covid-positive person could undertake their isolation in separate accommodation away from the rest of their household. This would leave the rest of the household only isolating for ten days.
This has not been seen as very helpful, given that the major problem with the policy is the cost to families. Having everyone in 10 days of isolation plus another family in paid accommodation is even more expensive.
New Zealand’s health officials have stressed that these orders will be monitored and reviewed if the situation changes.
“We will experience in New Zealand cases at a level that we haven’t experienced before. We won’t stop Omicron, but we can try and slow it down,” said Ardern.