Workers in critical businesses will no longer have to isolate if they are identified as a close contact, providing they return daily negative rapid antigen tests.
A new close contact exemption scheme to help keep critical supply chains running though Omicron has been announced by Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall this morning.
Businesses will self-assess against criteria to join the scheme.
Close contacts who work alone can also continue to operate in a bubble of one such as farmers or sole traders including plumbers and residential builders providing they are also vaccinated. These guidelines applied to any workers, not just critical workers, and they were not required to return regular tests.
Hipkins said the scheme was a result of weeks of working with industry bodies and critical services to set up a scheme that gave their workers an exemption from close contact isolation requirements providing they returned daily negative tests.
"We've seen overseas that a combination of high rates of Omicron alongside isolation periods for contacts has put severe strain on supply chains and the provision of important services," he said.
"The scheme will be supported by rapid antigen tests supplied either directly by the business or service, or through our health system in an easy and accessible way."
As of today, businesses and organisations can register online as a critical service if they think they will meet the criteria when the country enters phase 2 of its Omicron response. Registration includes a declaration and will be able to be checked.
Critical services include food production and its supply chain, key public services like health and emergency services, lifeline utilities such as power and water supplies, transport, critical financial services, news media and social welfare. It also includes human and animal health and welfare.
Verrall said those businesses that wanted to participate in the scheme needed to be aware that bringing close contacts into the workplace came with risks.
"While the new scheme will help businesses continue to operate, rapid antigen testing is about 80 per cent accurate. This may mean they have someone onsite who has Covid-19 and could infect other workers, which could further compromise business operations."
Any workers involved in the scheme needed to be vaccinated. If at any point they returned a positive test, then they would need to take a PCR test and isolate.
"Those businesses that decide to register will be issued with a letter that, when New Zealand shifts to Phase 2 of our Omicron response, will enable eligible workers to either use rapid antigen tests that their employers may hold, or collect rapid antigen tests from a collection site.
"Workers will get enough testing kits to cover the period they would've been isolating, and the places they can pick them up from will be put on the Healthpoint website.
"We know isolation is the best way to stop the chain of transmission so businesses and workers involved in the scheme will need to continue to play their part in reducing the spread of the virus by complying with daily symptom checks, and other health measures while at work."
Workers identified as close contacts will also be expected to remain in isolation outside of work hours because in many instances be living with household members who have Omicron.
"We are taking a pragmatic approach to Omicron and its management. These changes strike a balance between continuing to keep people safe, but also keep businesses and services operating as smoothly as possible," Hipkins said.
• More information including how to apply and the criteria for self-assessment can be found at www.business.govt.nz .