There’s no time to waste if we’re to keep Omicron out of NZ

Published in Stuff, 12th. January 2022

Judging by the number of arrivals at the border in MIQ with Omicron, it seems that the authorities may have all but “thrown in the towel” on preventing a community (and inevitably nationwide) outbreak of this particular variant of Covid in the immediate future. We are getting some ten times the number of infected arrivals we have been used to managing in the past. We need to “turn down the tap” urgently.

As the modeller Professor Plank of the University Canterbury has said “it’s a numbers game”. The more people you have at the border in MIQ with Covid, the greater the likelihood that there will be a breach of biosecurity and the disease will leak into the community. He suggested that, at the current rate of arrivals, such a breach would likely occur in the next two to three weeks.

The MIQ authority has been making reassuring noises about the effectiveness of current border controls, but it would be hard for them to say anything different for fear of the community quickly losing confidence and seeing a run on supermarket supplies and other understandable panic reactions.

The number of people arriving with COVID-19 now is not sustainable. It seems remarkable that the authorities cannot establish a system that does a better job of shaking out those who already have the disease and postpone their arrival until a time they are free of the disease and can safely enter the country. We need to reinvigorate our risk management strategies.

One argument used is that many people wishing to come to New Zealand come from countries without adequate PCR-testing facilities. And yet, apart from the South Pacific, all flights from such countries to New Zealand pass through international gateways that must have facilities for PCR testing. It seems odd that those wanting to come to this country who have to transit through such gateways are not being told that they must be PCR-tested there.

Airline passengers from the UK to the US have to show a negative PCR test 24 hours before departure. And the US is no hermit kingdom. So, could New Zealand not require the same – either from departure country or at an international gateway en route? Such passengers, where PCR was not available in their country, could take daily rapid antigen tests (RAT) for several consecutive days before departure to a gateway, ensuring that all are negative, which then reduces the risk of a positive PCR test at an international gateway en route.

Another argument is that New Zealand cannot put any limitations on the arrival of its citizens in the country. In many instances such citizens are visiting family, which is heart-warming and something that a civilised and well-organised country should facilitate.

But what if those very citizens being welcomed home are putting others at risk because they carry Covid? For example, the case of the mother with a new-born child who has been out of the country for at least a decade and wants her mother to meet the grandchild. But what if that visit carried a risk of disease infection to the very grandmother the family loves and wants to reconnect with?

Finally, it is argued by some that Omicron, while being more transmissible is also milder, and that we need to get it over and done with before winter arrives. Even if those assumptions held, we can see from developments over the Tasman and elsewhere around the developed world how Omicron can buckle health systems, undercut supply chains, hollow out employee numbers, and keep people at home. So, its arrival is not good for health or for economy.

If we don’t want “to throw in the towel” on Omicron, can we just “turn down the tap” of infected arrivals at the border to buy us the time to ensure booster shots, immunisation of children, and better enforcement of vaccine pass and mask mandates?

A more rigorous system of screening pre-departure to New Zealand, and of reducing arrivals from countries with high levels of Omicron transmission, as was done with India when its COVID outbreak was at very high levels last year, would reduce the number of infected arrivals and give us time to shore up our internal defences. This could go on until March, if necessary, giving time for the great majority of New Zealanders to have their boosters and for 5-11-year-olds to be fully vaccinated.

At that point we could still use MIQ, or a mix of MIQ and home isolation, depending on risk status. Without such careful management, home isolation would lead to almost immediate widespread community outbreaks. In summary, we can be much better prepared, and there is no time to waste.  

Peter Davis, Elected Member, Auckland District Health Board.

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