Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government would not institute an immediate lockdown if the Omicron variant of the virus was found in the community.
Hipkins said it would instead look to use the red setting in the traffic-light system – despite epidemiologist Michael Baker saying this would not be enough to stop cases of the highly-transmissible variant exploding.
The Government is wary of using lockdowns again as the country reaches higher levels of vaccinations and Aucklanders finally regain freedom of movement.
The red setting would not stop people from leaving the house or mingling with others, but would place limits on gatherings and hospitality similar to those seen under alert level 2.
Omicron appears to be dramatically more transmissible than earlier variants, even among those who are double-vaccinated – but there are also reports it appears to cause milder symptoms, especially among the vaccinated.
It is currently present in managed isolation but no cases have been found in the community.
Hipkins said lockdowns and the old alert level system remained as a possible option, but the Government was not keen to see them brought back.
“It is not our intention to move to lockdowns unless absolutely necessary in the event of a widespread outbreak where our health system comes under considerable strain – and even then the strong preference is for the lockdown to be highly targeted.”
Asked directly by Stuff if he would order a lockdown if told that there were two community cases with Omicron, Hipkins said no.
”No. The red traffic light is our go-to, at least initially, and we’d see how things unfolded from there.”
Red would be almost automatic however, even if it at that point there was no real strain on the healthcare system.
“In moving to the traffic light system, we signalled that we would be adjusting to more of a reactive stance when it came to protective measures, and would apply them when case numbers grew and the health system came under pressure,” Hipkins said.
“Omicron has changed that. When it does arrive, we expect that it will spread fast, and that’s what we’re seeing in other places. To slow that spread, we may use the red traffic light settings earlier on. That will give us the best chance to avoid returning to more restrictive alert level settings.
Baker said the traffic light system – even at red – would not stop spread of the new variant.
“You have to effectively go back to the alert level system if you want to contain the virus.”
Hipkins said the Government was doing all it could to stop the virus leaking out of managed isolation but no system was perfect.