Jacinda Ardern will have to make one of the crucial decisions as Prime Minister this month; whether to stick or warp on New Zealand’s border maps.
And she has new advice from public health experts, urging her to avoid a peak winter outbreak that would strain New Zealand’s health system.
Pressure is mounting for Ms Ardern to phase out New Zealand’s border regime and mandatory 10-day stay in hotel quarantine for all travellers, including citizens.
Quarantine places, known locally as MIQs, are hotly contested – the government offers them in ballots, which are usually well oversubscribed.
And for the moment, they are prohibited.
Earning the ire of overseas-based Kiwis, Ms Ardern’s government canceled this week’s MIQ hall release due to a surge of cases of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant, at the border.
“There has been a 10-fold increase in positive cases of COVID-19 at the border compared to December,” MIQ chief Chris Bunny said in a statement released late Tuesday evening.
“We realize this will be disappointing for many people wishing to return to New Zealand. The Government’s strategy is to minimize the risk of Omicron in New Zealand as much as possible.”
To date, only five community cases of Omicron have been detected, all vaccinated, with transmission limited to households.
The pressing question for Ms. Ardern is when to make changes to the border, knowing that Omicron is likely to infiltrate the community.
The previous plan was to allow Kiwis based in Australia to self-isolate from this week, which was pushed back to the end of February.
On Wednesday, COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins suggested the calendar had also been scrapped.
“There’s no doubt that we’re moving into a self-isolation model…the question of exactly when it happens and the sequencing, that has changed,” he said.
“No decision has been taken on the date, sequence and terms of the reopening of the border and Cabinet will consider the options in the coming weeks.
“In the meantime, our goal will be to increase booster rates and vaccinate as many children ages 5-11 as possible before Omicron takes hold in the community.”
The question of reopening is a contentious one for Ms Ardern, who won a resounding re-election in 2020 with a political brand inexorably linked to New Zealand’s elimination strategy.
Of course, it may not be the government’s decision when Omicron infiltrates the community.
With an average of 35 border cases arriving each day, Ms Ardern said this week that an outbreak of Omicron was a matter of “when, not if”.
A group of New Zealand’s most prominent public health experts released an open letter this week with suggested changes to COVID-19 settings based on the ramp-up of Omicron.
“The first urgent priority is to increase measures to delay the arrival of the Omicron variant to allow more preparation time,” they wrote.
They also suggest a “shift from the current strategy of suppression to mitigation”…”to ‘flatten the curve’ and minimize the risk of overburdened health services and social and economic disruption.”
One of the authors, Michael Baker, a professor at the University of Otago, told AAP “some sort of mitigation approach is probably the best we can manage.”
“If you’re going to let him in, is there an optimal time for it? There’s reason to say you don’t want Omicron coming in the middle of winter,” he said. .
“If you say it’s inevitable, at some point after February and before winter, if you could pick one point, it would be in that range.”
By making the delicate call of reopening, New Zealand can at least count on strong vaccination rates.
As of Wednesday, 93% of Kiwis aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated, 95% are partially vaccinated, with an accelerated booster campaign and the children’s vax campaign continuing in earnest.
Authorities also reported 24 new community cases and 56 border cases on Wednesday.
There are 24 people in Kiwi hospitals with COVID-19, including two in intensive care.
Australian Associated Press