* The move to Phase 2 – what it means for you
* Watch: ‘Gutsful’ – police reinforcements called in as protesters’ cars set to be towed
* ‘Lack of leadership’: Business owners slam PM’s absence from Wellington over weekend
* Press Gallery journalist tests positive for Covid
New Zealand will move to Phase 2 of the Omicron response plan from 11.59pm tonight following a record 981 daily cases on Monday.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the increase in Covid-19 cases was not unexpected and the country would stay in Phase 2 as long as daily cases remained between 1000 and 5000 cases.
There was no change to the traffic light system, and schools and businesses remained open, she said.
Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said Phase 3 was not an inevitability, and the objective remained the same – the difference “is simply how much we are able to follow up people, the requirement on people to self-isolate, and the kind of tests we will use”.
The move to Phase 2 comes after the 981 new cases were reported in the community today – under the Government’s three-phase plan for the outbreak, it was expected Phase 2 would kick in once numbers topped 1000 cases.Thirty-nine people are in hospital, none in ICU.
Ardern said the way to handle this period would be the same as previous times – test, vaccinate and isolate if sick.
“So we are embarking for the first time in the two years since the start of the outbreak into a period where New Zealanders will see more Covid in the community … it will be nothing like we’ve experienced to date but our efforts with vaccination mean we have got to this place without the volume of serious illness and death that so many others experienced.
“And still as always be kind and respectful. I know there is Covid fatigue, but I also know that no one wants to let go of the freedoms we’ve gained from uniting and protecting one another. We need respectful discussion and tolerance as we navigate this next phase together.”
What Phase 2 means
A phase of “greater self-management” would soon commence, said Ardern.
The move to Phase 2 means the self-isolation period for cases reduces from 14 days to 10 days, and for contacts from 10 days to seven. The period of self isolation also applies to household members.
“We’ve seen that 90 per cent of household contacts who were going to test positive do so within those first 10 days,” with Omicron, Ardern said, so there were good reasons for the changes.
“These changes that we’re making are based on good supporting evidence.”
She advised people to develop a self-isolation plan, including identifying a buddy who could drop off supplies.
Phase 2 would also activate a close-contact exemption scheme.
Asymptomatic, vaccinated close contacts could keep going to work instead of self-isolating, Ardern said.
Businesses signing up to an essential workforce scheme would be eligible for some free rapid antigen tests.
While many cases would still be diagnosed by the more familiar PCR test, rapid tests would become more widely used, the PM said.
“We will use it into Phase 2 until the numbers get quite high,” Bloomfield said of Bluetooth contact tracing functions on the Covid app.
“It certainly has some utility but we would likely phase it out towards the end of Phase 2,” he said
Asked if people should adopt a lockdown mentality, Bloomfield said current pandemic response settings were designed to keep people safe, and let people conduct normal business.
There was no need to isolate as much as previously, thanks to high vaccination rates, Bloomfield said.
He made the point that the “vast majority of cases are in Auckland”.
“We have a two-speed outbreak,” Bloomfield said, noting cases will continue to increase in Auckland.
Ardern said: “We have slowed it down. That’s not to say we will see a shallower peak as a result. Only time and boosters will tell us that”.
Bloomfield said significant numbers of cases were from the Asian and Pacific communities, mainly as a result of the exposure events so far.
Ardern said that overseas people changed their behaviour in response to an Omicron outbreak, but then reverted to their normal way of life.
“We won’t be following up nor expecting people to isolate if they’ve been in a hospitality venue, say a cafe, unless they were in a party [at the same table],” Bloomfield said, of the changes to contact tracing at Phase 2.
“There are two reasons why people aren’t going out. One is they don’t want to get Covid, and one is, yes, that they don’t want to get identified as a close contact,” Bloomfield said.
When can I get a RAT?
Asked about timeframes for rapid test purchases, Bloomfield said these tests might help people feel safer, but sometimes triggered results nobody expected.
He said a large number of rapid tests were expected to arrive in late February.
Ardern said she hoped everybody who needed a rapid test could get one.
For some businesses, the Government would provide the tests directly to the employer.
“Even if that testing comes under pressure, we have rapid antigen tests ready to utilise,” Ardern said of pressure on traditional PCR tests.
As Omicron cases increase, so too would hospital admissions, Ardern said.
“Get a booster if you haven’t already. It’s very clear that the job is not done. Omicron is here … make your booster the first thing to protect yourself.”
“It is a period of disruption and risk. It will be like nothing we have experienced to date. Now is not the time to give up. The way to handle this is the same. Get vaccinated, get tested.
“I know there is Covid fatigue.
“The best day to get your vaccine and booster was yesterday. The second best day is today.”
Ardern said rapid antigen tests had to be confirmed with PCR tests, referring to a press gallery journalist who had tested positive for Covid-19 with an RAT. “I want to acknowledge they are not always 100 per cent accurate.”
Ardern said the Government’s goal was to break the chains of Covid transmission.
“There is no change to the traffic lights,” the PM added, referring to pandemic restrictions.
Ardern urged people to be kind and tolerant.
Bloomfield said health officials were working on plans around when rapid antigen tests might be widely available for purchase
Ardern said the Government “will not be in the position” to offer accommodation to people who were having to isolate. However, if this meant people isolating in cars, the Government would try to house them.
Ardern said eventually, subtle changes would be activated at Phase 3 of the Omicron response.
“Ultimately … we’ve always relied on people sharing with us information that keeps their friends, colleagues and loved ones safe.”
Bloomfield said Phase 3 of the response was not inevitable.
Ardern confirmed Finance Minister Grant Robertson was working on “one-off and short-term” measures to help businesses hit by the current outbreak.
Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health was “in constant contact” with education officials on school testing.
“For those who need them as part of the critical worker exemption scheme, they will be notified where to pick up their rapid antigen tests,” Ardern said.
Ardern on using sprinklers v protesters
The PM was asked about Trevor Mallard’s decision to turn sprinklers on at Parliament late last week.
Ardern said she would not pass judgment on Mallard or the police.
“It has stepped, in my mind, beyond a protest, given the ongoing harassment and intimidation of people trying to go about their daily lives.”
Ardern was asked about occupiers’ recent requests for an audience with the Government.
“Their request and demands of the New Zealand people is that all public health measures are removed.
“Forgive me if I take a very strong view on that suggestion.”
Some Opposition MPs and business groups in Wellington have criticised the PM for her absence and silence since last Thursday as Police tried to move the protesters, whose vehicles are still blocking streets around Parliament.
Ardern has said it is up to police to decide how to handle the situation but said she wanted the protesters to leave.
She said did not approve of the tactics of the protesters and said they and their children should go home.
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