With the inevitable spread of Omicron, we're going to learn some things about our Covid preparedness.
We're also going to learn how Kiwis will behave when Covid is everywhere in the community. According to one data modeller, 50 per cent of us may have caught the virus within four months.
Whatever happens, it will be new territory for us and the Government.
I've got five ponderables that we should have answers to in time.
1. Will the traffic light system be enough to prevent our hospitals being overwhelmed?
People will get sick with Omicron, people are going to end up in ICU. Our hospitals and our health staff must be able to cope. The Prime Minister assures us that the traffic light system, particularly at red, will be enough to suppress the spread of the virus. Lockdowns are ruled out. We can perhaps take confidence from South Australia, where mandates and restrictions comparable to New Zealand under the traffic light system are in place. This has so far seen South Australia's health system under less pressure than New South Wales, where there have been fewer restrictions. And thanks to our cautious approach, we hopefully won't be dealing with a simultaneous Delta surge and Omicron outbreak, as was the case in Australia's most populous states.
2. How sick is our health system?
The Government says we have enough ICU capacity to handle an Omicron peak. Those who work in our hospitals aren't as confident. The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, a union representing doctors across our hospitals, has presented a stark picture of the difference between the Australian health system and our own. On a per-capita basis, we are 1500 hospital specialists, 1400 GPs and 12,000 nurses behind Australia. Yet, hospitals in New South Wales and Victoria have struggled to cope because of high numbers of people requiring care and staff getting sick. Given the outrageous disparity in health system capacity, which no amount of political spin can deny, our response to Omicron has to come back to question one. Our mandates and restrictions must be stronger than Australia's, or there's potential for ugly scenes in our hospitals. Changes to the traffic light system can't, therefore, be ruled out.
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3. Are people going to stay away from hospitality venues?
Regardless of the traffic light settings, how many of us will stop going to cafes, bars and restaurants anyway? Infectious disease expert Siouxsie Wiles says she and her family will be staying away. Many vaccinated people won't necessarily be worried about catching Covid themselves (though no one wants to get sick). But they might still be worried about passing it on to a vulnerable family member. How mobile and sociable we'll be over the next six months is one ponderable that's hard to predict. Right now, I can't see myself
rushing to venues where people will be eating and drinking unmasked. When will that change? After I've caught Omicron?
4. Will scanning and signing in eventually become redundant?
Omicron is going to put the contact tracing system under extreme stress. When we were trying to eliminate Covid, the point of contact tracing was very clear. With Omicron eventually widespread, contact tracers may be better redirected to other tasks. The Government has already signalled a pivot. The details are yet to be announced. But it seems our priority should now be ensuring people with the virus are isolating and getting the right level of health care for their level of sickness. We don't want people turning up at hospitals that don't need to. And the opposite, we don't want people not seeking hospital care when they should. This needs to be actively managed. Testing capacity also has to be ramped up. Requiring the attention of more Ministry of Health staff. If contact tracing ceases to be an effective use of human resources, then in a related way the need to scan or sign in everywhere seems less important. Maybe if we ease up on one requirement, we'll be more likely to follow other mandates, like wearing high-protection masks properly in indoor public settings.
5. How long before we welcome visitors to Aotearoa again?
With Omicron widespread, there will be little justification for making people stay in MIQ. Returning New Zealanders will soon be able to isolate at home instead. Then we can start thinking about welcoming visitors to our country again without them also going through the MIQ ordeal. National and Act will be at the forefront of applying political pressure on the Government. Labour probably won't rush and will step us through the transition. How well we cope with an Omicron peak will determine the timeline. The caution here, though, is that we should be prepared to reinstate travel restrictions if a new and more dangerous variant emerges. Until we have a global vaccination strategy, which we currently don't, that still remains a possibility.