Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed New Zealand will move to the red traffic light setting at midnight tonight.
Nine Covid cases in Motueka are confirmed to have the Omicron variant, prompting the decision, Ardern said.
They attended a wedding in Auckland along with a funeral, an amusement park and the Sky Tower on the weekend of January 15 and 16. These events had well over 100 people.
Omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson area, if not further, Ardern said.
The Government will be taking a three-stage approach to the point where New Zealand sees 1000 cases a day, Ardern said.
Stage one will be the familiar stamp it out approach, with contact tracing and testing, including rapid antigen tests. Stage two will be a transition stage. The third stage will see changes to contact tracing, and further details on the three stages will be released at a later date, Ardern said.
Every region will move to the red setting regardless of whether that area has had a confirmed Omicron case, and Ardern said she expected the country would stay in red for "some weeks".
"The evidence from overseas suggests [Omicron] moves very quickly," Ardern said. "Red will make a difference."
Given New Zealand's low number of Delta cases, we have capacity in our system to slow down the virus, Ardern said.
"The difference to previous outbreaks is we are now well vaccinated and well prepared," she said.
Close contacts of cases will be required to isolate for 10 days and follow requirements for testing which will usually be at day five.
Ardern said the focus was now on getting people their boosters. The Government is sticking to the four-month gap between the second dose and booster but that would be continually reviewed.
There are over four and half million RAT tests already in the country and millions more on the way, Ardern said.
The Government was still sticking with its plans to relax border restrictions by the end of February but that would be done in a staged way.
With the move to the red light setting, Ardern said she and fiancé Clarke Gayford had decided not to go ahead with their wedding.
"I just join many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like that as a result of the pandemic," she said. "Such is life. I am no different to dare I say thousands of other New Zealanders."
The decision to move to red has hinged on the results of genome sequencing for several Covid cases with no clear link to the border.
Nine Covid-positive people in Motueka are now confirmed to have the Omicron variant, and director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said today "we don't yet know the source of these community cases".
The group from Nelson attended a wedding in Auckland on January 13, as well as a funeral, an amusement park and the Sky Tower.
They flew back to Nelson on January 16, on a flight shared an Air NZ crew member who has also tested positive with Omicron. He then worked on a further four flights, which are all now locations of interest. 150 people on those flights have been contacted and those efforts continued this morning.
Health officials are working to understand how exactly the nine Motukea cases became infected. The level of community transmission from the group is expected to be high, Bloomfield said, and it was essential to work out the extent of the spread.
Bloomfield said it was very important that the first person infected in Motukea got tested. "We are really grateful for that," he said.
There will be people outside of Nelson and Auckland who have travelled to those regions and were encouraged to get tested, he said.
People were encouraged to check the locations of interest as a number of new sites had been listed, Bloomfield said.
"If you are symptomatic, please seek a test," he said. "If you don't have symptoms, there is no need to get a test at this point."
There are at least 16 Omicron cases who have been outside in the community after the highly contagious variant slipped through border controls.
That includes the Motueka cases, two Auckland Airport workers, an MIQ staffer, two close contacts and another person who spent two days moving about in Palmerston North while potentially infectious after being discharged from MIQ.
Red is the most restrictive traffic light setting, but domestic travel can continue. There would be no more borders around regions, such as the recent Auckland borders.
While lockdowns would not be widespread, there could be lockdowns localised to a workplace or school, for example, depending on what was happening in the outbreak.
In red, face coverings are mandatory when travelling on public transport, in retail and to an extent in education. Public facilities and retail outlets are open, with capacity limits.
With a vaccine pass, many businesses and events can have a maximum of 100 people, including hospitality, gyms, weddings and tangihanga. Without passes, hospitality services must remain contactless and the aforementioned gatherings are limited to 25 people.
Education centres stay open but with extra health measures including year four and up will be required to wear masks.
Tertiary students must study remotely if they don't have a vaccine pass.
Gyms and close contact businesses such as hairdressers and beauty salons can open in red as long as public health measures are in place.
The move will be a cruel blow to hospitality in businesses in Northland, which only moved to orange this week.
The Government was not considering the closure of hospitality but they would continue to review the situation, Ardern said.
Schools to open
Despite Omicron, schools will still open as planned, Ardern said today.
One of the most important things people can do is have a buddy so that if one does become infected the other could help deliver food and support them, Ardern said.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he wants to see more face-to-face learning this year, and schools will deal with the virus differently than they have over the past two years.
But he says it's possible some schools may have to move to learning from home if they are understaffed because so many teaches have been exposed to Covid.
Kids will experience disruption if they, a close contact, or someone in their household is sick, but otherwise they will be at school and in class, Hipkins said.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said today if businesses follow public health measures they could remain open and the economy will continue to operate strongly.
"At the red level, this is not a lockdown," he said. "Our initial focus is on supporting those workers who are not able to work because they have to self-isolate."
The short term absent payment is $359 per worker.
There are other business support packages available and further detail was available on the Ministry of Social Development website, Robertson said.
The trajectory of Omicron would help the Government judge if further employment resources are needed, he said.
Robertson said they were looking at whether it was appropriate to offer employment assistance to those who were not willing to get vaccinated.
Long lines at supermarkets have already been spotted around the country
Robertson said the Government was working very hard to avoid supermarket shelves being empty.
"There is absolutely no need to be out there panic buying... we are asking people to think about what stocks they need if you do get sick but there is plenty of time for that," Robertson said.
"Planning and preparing is a good thing but buying three trolley loads of toilet paper is not."
Epidemiologists professors Michael Baker and Rod Jackson have urged the Government to go further than the traffic light change and shift the eligibility for booster shots from four to three months, as Australia just announced.
About 56 per cent of eligible adults have already received their booster.
But Baker, of Otago University, said changes to our own behaviour, via the traffic light system, would make a large impact in blunting the blow of an Omicron wave.
"Limiting gathering sizes will make a great difference – and working from home should definitely be encouraged."
Jackson, of the University of Auckland, argued a delay to the start of the school year – as has been called for by others – could help reduce case numbers.
"That is a major super-spreading setting, and it's not that kids themselves get incredibly sick – it's that they infect their teachers, parents and grandparents," Jackson said.
"I appreciate that's controversial in terms of disrupting everything, but we have one goal, and one goal only – and that is to flatten the peak.
"We're not going to stop Omicron, but we can slow it down."