Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Last day in alert levels dawns as Omicron destabilises global travel

The spread of a new virus mutant has sparked fresh global warnings as New Zealand enters its final day in the Covid-19 alert level system.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday urged countries to prepare for Omicron, saying the new variant’s overall risk was considered very high due to its higher transmissibility which could lead to “further surges with severe consequences”.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins conceded it was probably inevitable Omicron would eventually arrive in New Zealand.

But he said there was no need for panic, and the Government had prepared for the new strain.

The WHO urged people who were unvaccinated, unwell, or aged 60 and older to postpone travel to communities with Omicron cases.

It extended the advice to people with comorbidities including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

“Preliminary evidence suggested an increased risk of reinfection with this variant as compared to other variants of concern,” the WHO added.

Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands have reported Omicron cases, as scientists race to learn more about the variant’s transmissibility and virulence.

New Zealand has responded to Omicron by designating nine southern African nations “very high risk” and restricting travel from these countries.

Travel to these nations is now limited to New Zealand citizens, their partners or dependent children, and the parents of dependent children who are New Zealand citizens.

The risk designations remained even though it emerged Omicron was in the Netherlands at least five days before South Africa announced the variant’s existence.

Hipkins said the designation of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Malawi, Eswatini, Lesotho and Seychelles was being constantly reviewed.

“We want to try and minimise the chances of that strand of the virus making its way into New Zealand, or at least delay it as much as we can,” he said.

The WHO said blanket travel bans placed heavy burdens on lives and livelihoods and did not prevent international spread.

Travels bans could also remove incentives for countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data, the organisation said.

The WHO praised South Africa and Botswana for steps taken to contain Omicron. But some countries have imposed sudden and severe travel bans.

Australia stopped all flights to and from the nine African nations and banned foreigners who travelled to these countries in the past fortnight.

Domestically, and with the new traffic light system approaching, a coupon plan announced yesterday aimed at stimulating local business went down like a cup of cold sick with restaurant owners.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern discussed the scheme at an outdoor Auckland Zoo press conference as spider monkeys cavorted in the background.

Aucklanders are being offered 100,000 vouchers this summer for activities. The $37 million scheme lets families register for discounts or vouchers at Auckland attractions.

But the Restaurant Association’s response was scalding.

“We are absolutely crushed for our Auckland businesses that have been closed for months on end and are left with nothing in this package,” the industry group said.

“For 475 days we have been calling for targeted support, yet every call has fallen on deaf ears.”

In response, Hipkins at yesterday’s Beehive press conference said restaurants would benefit from activation of the new traffic light pandemic response travel.

From 11.59pm tonight, the country will abolish the four-stage alert level system. Hipkins said restaurants will then be able to open for customers with vaccine passes, and he expected a lot of consumer demand.

Hospitality NZ chief executive Julie White this morning said the hospitality sector was “lost for words” and “beside themselves” over yesterday’s snub over Auckland’s stimulation package.

Feedback she received from members yesterday was of disbelief and disgust.

“The hospitality sector has done it tough, they’ve had the toughest restrictions and look we do move to Freedom Day tomorrow, but we do have the toughest restrictions.”

The lockdown had been devastating and the sector has lost 75 per cent of its revenue, she said.

She told The AM Show it was up to the Government to step up and own the closures that were likely to come because re-looking at it in January could be too late.

“Our sector is beside themselves. I can’t tell you – the tears and frustrations I received yesterday is heartbreaking. You’ve got to remember people behind this have families, they’ve remortgaged their houses, they’ve borrowed money from their friends, they are willing to open up but, you know, how much longer can they go on for.”

The minister said the vouchers were designed to give people confidence to get out, and signified the Government’s gratitude for sacrifices Aucklanders made in lockdown.

Hipkins, with director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield joining him, also revealed the Government had advanced plans to vaccinate more children.

The new vaccine initiative looked at people aged five to 11. These children had a lower risk of direct health impacts from Covid-19 than adults did, but Hipkins added: “Covid-19 can still have serious health consequences for them.”

Immunology professor and Mallaghan Institute director Graham Le Gros this morning said MedSafe had the advantage of seeing how children in other countries where the vaccination roll-out had started already were doing – and if there had been any adverse effects.

“Really, we’re in a very good situation to move forward here,” he told TVNZ’s Breakfast programme.

It is a third of the Pfizer dose and said it was “very safe”.

What experts had seen was that the vaccination for children in that age group was very safe and he acknowledged that parents did not want their children to get Covid-19.

He said many children who had contracted the virus had milder symptoms compared with older people. But there were some children who reacted to the virus just like an older person would, he said, and may even get long Covid.

“This virus – it doesn’t matter who you are or how old or young – it will grow in your heart, it will grow in your brain, it will grow in your blood vessels.

“We don’t want that. We never let viruses grow in our body that way – and the vaccine is the only thing to prevent that.”

This is what we have and you are better off getting the vaccine rather than the virus, Le Gros said.

Despite what anti-vaxxers said, Le Gros said he had seen the research and said the vaccine was safe.

Children’s Commissioner Frances Eivers welcomed the planned new year rollout of vaccines for children in this age group.

“This not only provides protection for them but plays a part in protecting the community,” Eivers said.

She urged the Government to promptly engage with Māori, paediatric immunisations specialists, schools and communities on the vaccine rollout.

Children under 12 could develop Covid-19 infections and pass the infection on, Dr Amanda Kvalsvig told the Science Media Centre.

She said the upcoming traffic light system would depend heavily on high vaccination rates.

“That’s concerning because as we’ve seen repeatedly in other countries, vaccination alone isn’t enough to stop outbreaks when there are cases in the community.”

She said clear health advice from the Government was needed for people about exercising and meeting up outdoors, and keeping doors and windows open when inside.

Kvalsvig said this summer, good ventilation and the use of face masks would be critical to keeping Covid-19 at bay.

“Importantly, they’ll continue to work regardless of which Covid-19 variant is circulating.”

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