WELLINGTON, New Zealand - New Zealand is among the few remaining countries to have avoided any outbreak of the omicron variant - but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that an outbreak was inevitable and that the nation would tighten restrictions as soon as one was discovered.
But she also said New Zealand would not impose the lockdowns it has used in the past, including for the delta variant.
"This stage of the pandemic is different from what we've been dealing with before. Omicron is more transferable," Ardern said. "It will make it harder to keep it out, but it will also make it more challenging to control once it arrives. But just like before, when COVID changes, we change."
Ardern said that within 24 to 48 hours of the omicron being discovered in society, the nation would move into its "red" environment. It would allow companies to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but would require school children to wear masks and limit the crowd to 100 people.
Currently, most of New Zealand is in the “orange” setting, which requires some mask wearing and proof of vaccination, but does not limit the amount of audience.
About 93% of New Zealanders aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated and 52% have received a booster shot. The country has just started vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11.
New Zealand has managed to limit the spread of the delta variant by an average of about 20 new cases each day. But it has seen an increasing number of people arrive in the country and go into mandatory quarantine, which is infected with omicron.
It has put pressure on the quarantine system and caused the government to restrict access for returning citizens while deciding what to do to reopen its borders, angering many people who want to return to New Zealand.
Opposition leader Christopher Luxon said Ardern had planned poorly for omicron and had managed to secure less than one quick COVID-19 test per year. person.
"It's an astonishing accusation of the government's lazy lack of planning," he said.
Ardern said the most important thing people could do was get a booster shot, which would reduce the severity of an omicron infection and allow most people to recover at home instead of needing hospital treatment.