Covid-19 Omicron outbreak: Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson on Parliament protesters, pathway out of Covid

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson says the Parliament grounds occupation is no longer peaceful – and has urged protesters to go home.

Robertson said police were doing what they said they would do in a bid to give Wellingtonians their city back.

“They’re over this,” Robertson told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking.

And Robertson told TVNZ said this was no longer a peaceful protest and called on those involved to go home. “This is a protest that has gone well beyond what I think most New Zealanders would see as a peaceful protest. You’ve made your point, please leave now.”

Asked if there was any chance of discussion between the Government and the protesters, Roberston said they would not negotiate with people who were carrying out acts such as the illegal blocking of roads and throwing human waste at police and into the city’s drains.

He encouraged people not to visit the site. “This is not a place for people to go to spectate,” he told TVNZ’s Breakfast.

“Wellingtonians have had enough of this. Our streets have been blocked, our people have been harassed, our environment has been trashed.

“Whatever point the protesters think they might’ve been making, they’ve made it and now it’s time for them to leave.”

Meanwhile, Robertson told AM he did not think phase 3 of the red-light response would be “far away at all”.

The trigger point was around 5000 cases a day and cases were currently doubling every three to four days. There were 2365 cases on Monday.

Under phase 3, the definition of a close contact changed and narrowed to basically being a household contact so this would help businesses keep going with few people required to isolate. “We do recognise with more cases, the level of disruption businesses face is going to be much higher.”

They recognised it was very tough for a number of businesses, which is why they had offered the latest support package, he said.

Currently in phase 2 close contacts still had to isolate, but RATS allowed people to be tested more quickly so they could isolate and let their contacts know. The role of rapid antigen tests would also evolve as the country moved into phase 3.

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Robertson pointed to other countries where an Omicron outbreak had occurred – the rate of Covid cases peaked within four to six weeks.

Overseas evidence showed that once that Omicron wave was over, consumers were quick to come back to support businesses. “This is a hump that we will get over.”

Robertson told Hosking that the Government wasn’t slow to introduce more financial support for businesses. They needed to first look at Omicron’s impact, he said.

The economy did not need an across-the-board wage subsidy – a targeted approach was required, he said. The hospitality industry was feeling the pain especially.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement flagging the easing of some vaccine mandates and a move away from vaccine passes once the Omicron peak has passed is the “right move”, says one expert.

Ardern said it looked likely New Zealand would hit an Omicron peak in roughly mid to late March before cases rapidly declined and then stabilised at a lower level.

At this point, Ardern said, public health measures could begin to be eased.

“Put simply, the reason we will be able to move away from vaccine passes and many mandates is because many more people will have had Covid.

“In the same way as coming out the other side of the peak will give us a chance to step down through the traffic light system, and ease things like gathering limits, it will also enable us to move on from vaccine passes and ease mandates in places where they are less likely to impact on vulnerable people. They will remain important in some areas, though, for some time.”

Melbourne University epidemiologist professor Tony Blakely told Newstalk ZB that removing vaccine mandates and passes once the Omicron peak was over was the right move.

“Flattening the curve is about applying public health and social measure as you go up to lessen the height of the peak of infection and then once you get to your peak, you can ease off.”

Mechanisms like vaccine passports, stocks of N95 masks and RATs, for example, should be available and in place but not necessarily always “turned on”, Blakely said.

“If another variant comes along, it’s concerning we turn those measures back on when we need them.”

It was understandable that restlessness was being seen around the world with mandates and restrictions, he said.

“What that reminds us is in public health we have extraordinary powers, we can lock up populations. We should only do those things when they are proportionate and justified. When they are not proportionate and justified, we should turn them off again,” Blakely told Newstalk ZB.

“That’s what will happen when New Zealand gets to its peak, those measures will start to come off again and hopefully we’ll be back to normal and we never have another wave, but you can’t rule out the possibility that Covid will throw us another variant in the future and we will need those measures again for a while.”

Ardern said she couldn’t give a specific date at this point around the easing of such restrictions but said public health would be watching to make sure New Zealand was well beyond the peak and pressure on the health system was manageable.

“We must brace through the next six weeks but we can do so knowing a future of fewer restrictions is near because that has always been the course we have chartered.”

The Ministry of Health reported 2365 new community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today and 116 people in hospital with the virus.

There had also been two Covid-19 related deaths, bringing the total to 55 since the outbreak began nearly two years ago.

Professor Michael Baker of Otago University said last week the country was on track to 10,000 Covid-19 infections a day – with most cases to be recorded in Auckland – by mid-March.

Baker said today’s announcement from the Prime Minister sounded very sensible and measured.

“We need to review the mandates to ensure which of them are required and which are fit for purpose. The two big things, I always say, is you have to see how is the virus behaving and how is the vaccine performing, and how are the other measures performing. You have mandates for mask use as well.

“It sounded very reasonable to me, the way it was framed. It is leaving open the fact that we have to see [what a] post-Omicron wave period is looking like in New Zealand and which controls we need to keep based on the level of risk and the benefit of these measures.”

However, one “big technical problem” remained in the overall response, Baker said.

The definition of being fully vaccinated in New Zealand needed to be changed to include being boosted as well, he said, and those changes should be reflected in vaccine passes.

“At the moment, it’s not actually achieving everything it could achieve because with the Omicron variant … to be fully vaccinated you need to have the booster.”

He said it was an “obvious limitation” of the current system and he hoped it would be fixed as soon as possible.

“You have to wait until most people are eligible for a booster, which will be a case very soon but the system needs to distinguish someone who is fully-vaxxed from someone who is fully-vaxxed and boosted. It just needs to be fit for purpose and it’s no longer there in terms of what it’s trying to achieve.”

He said as New Zealand was about to hit the most intensive period of virus transmission – it was important all tools were working in the most effective way.

“We know that high vaccine coverage and boosting is still the single most important measure in a situation where you’re going to be highly exposed to this virus.”

More than 2.1 million booster shots have now been given nationally, with more than 15,000 administered on Sunday.

Most of Monday’s community cases were in Auckland – 1692.

The remaining cases are across Northland (50), , Waikato (136), Bay of Plenty (42), Lakes (24), Hawke’s Bay (23), MidCentral (14), Whanganui (5), Taranaki (4), Tairāwhiti (9), Wairarapa (8), Capital and Coast (89), Hutt Valley (19), Nelson Marlborough (58), Canterbury (105), South Canterbury (1), and the Southern region (86).


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