New Zealand to announce new COVID measures

Wellington: Jacinda Ardern’s government will on Thursday announce new measures it hopes will ease the burden on hospitals struggling against a second wave of COVID-19 infections and the seasonal flu.

Under New Zealand’s current “orange light” restrictions, people must wear masks in public indoor settings, such as public transport, retail, and libraries.

The COVID subvariant BA.5 appears to be driving New Zealand’s second major wave, which is putting hospitals under pressure.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.Credit:Getty Images

On Wednesday, New Zealand reported 11,464 cases and 729 people hospitalised with COVID-19. The number of hospitalisations has been steadily in recent weeks.

Speaking in Fiji, Ardern said the main focus was on isolation requirements, mask use and vaccination.

The government is expected to make it easier to get free masks and rapid antigen tests (RATs), with concerns many cases of COVID-19 are going untested and unreported.

Stuff understands COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall will outline plans for the government to provide free masks and COVID-19 tests.

Verrall had already outlined plans to deliver 50 free masks to every school child in years 4-7.

A move to “red” restrictions would introduce an indoor gathering limit of 200 people but there is little political appetite for such a disruption and most infectious disease experts do not think it would have a significant impact at this time.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon has criticised the traffic light system, saying it is out of date and confusing. However, it is understood Verrall will not announce major changes to the settings.

Instead, Thursday’s announcement is expected to focus on ways for people to self-manage.

The spread of the flu and general colds has made identifying COVID-19 trickier during winter, and officials are concerned the virus is far more prevalent than official statistics indicate.

Professor Michael Baker said the government needed to do more to normalise mask use and urged Verrall to introduce a mask mandate for schools.

“Children should come back to mask mandates in schools. Look, for instance, at my 12-year-old daughter, who has a high quality mask but says ‘it is very hard to wear it all day if I’m the only one’.

“We need to switch to being a mask using environment, as quickly as possible.”

Ardern said the government remained focused on isolation requirements, mask use and vaccination.

She said there would be an increased focus on boosters for at-risk groups, such as older people and those who are immuno-suppressed. Many people in these groups are now eligible for a second booster.

While she acknowledged many countries had removed isolation requirements, Ardern said it was still important for household contacts of confirmed cases to isolate.

Baker said isolation remained crucial and anyone unwell needed to stay home.

“Going out while unwell is just like driving drunk,” he said.

“You are going to kill people. You can’t see the virus but it will kill.”

Baker said there was no point moving to “red”, other than to indicate that the pandemic needed to be taken more seriously. He suggested a warning system, similar to the roadside fire risks, rather than the rules-based traffic lights.

At the end of June, Verrall said a move to red was not needed as daily cases remained below 10,000 and fewer than 500 people were in hospitals. In the weeks since, case numbers and hospitalisations have exceeded those thresholds but there is no sign the country will move to “red”.

Stuff

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