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A new testing system for essential workers has been unveiled amid record high Covid-19 numbers and an ongoing police standoff with protesters at Parliament.
Those businesses who identify as an essential business will be able to access a free rapid antigen tests and continue to work, even while they would otherwise be isolating at home after being identified as a close contact.
Pandemic response minister Chris Hipkins yesterday announced the new exemption scheme aimed at keeping critical supply chains running.
Hipkins told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking It will not be a complicated process.
People who are involved in essential businesses - such as those working at supermarkets and other food production companies - are among those workers considered to be critical and are therefore eligible.
Hipkins said people are "nervous" still about Omicron - pointing out that the public had seen what was happening overseas.
Asked if the country had moved to the red alert too early, Hipkins acknowledged that it was those early and sudden movements into tougher restrictions that had helped to keep the number of community cases down.
"We are trying to reduce the size of the peak," he said.
The aim was to reduce the height of that peak.
We only needed to look across the Tasman, he said, to see what was happening and the number of Covid-related deaths happening there.
Hipkins acknowledged how people here and around the world were now "over" the pandemic that has continued over two years now.
Asked about a plan to end restrictions and get back to normality, Hipkins said that was difficult to do when no one knows what the pandemic will bring.
The National Party said the new scheme was overly bureaucratic, and Auckland Business Chamber said it was discriminatory.
But Hipkins indicated the pandemic response will become increasingly devolved, with more decision-making assigned to private companies.
A record high 306 new community cases of Covid-19 were announced yesterday and 122 people arrested in protests over issues including vaccine mandates.
With Omicron expected to spread widely, Hipkins said the Government would not micromanage the response.
The exception scheme was announced at Melling substation in Wellington's Hutt Valley, where maintenance work aimed to extend the life of 50-year-old transformers.
Like other so-called lifeline utilities, the installation is a critical piece of infrastructure.
Under the scheme, substation workers can get exemptions from close contact isolation requirements, if they return daily negative tests.
Other services deemed critical in the scheme include food production, health, emergency services, transport, critical financial services, news media, social welfare, and animal welfare.
Businesses can register as "critical services" if they think they 'll meet the criteria when New Zealand enters the second phase of the Omicron response.
The onset of that second phase is unconfirmed but Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said it would likely be activated in weeks, rather than months.
"It is up to businesses to self-assess and decide if they want to participate in the scheme," she said.
"In doing so, there needs to be an awareness that bringing close contacts into the workplace will come with risks."
The ministers said people who work alone, or have the capacity to do so, will be able to keep operating in a "bubble of one" if identified as a contact.
This would apply to vaccinated farmers, or sole traders who were vaccinated, asymptomatic, operated out of their own space, and worked alone.
National's Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said the new system would demand ridiculous amounts of information.
"It's unbelievable that this Government has managed to design the most bureaucratic system possible."
Bishop said workers had to provide two separate letters, a form of identification, business information, and a rapid antigen test order number.
"The simple point is this: Make rapid antigen tests ubiquitous, widely available at private businesses."
Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett said rapid testing tools should be available for every worker.
"It's all very well for officials to say one set of workers is more important than others and businesses which think they meet the criteria can apply," he said.
"The need to have such a list is a sign of failure."
Meanwhile, protests continued at Parliament from people airing concerns, including opposition to vaccine mandates.
A group dubbed Convoy 2022 travelled from around the country and arrived at Parliament on Tuesday, leading to gridlock on some of the capital city's streets.
One protester said she arrived with an attitude of peace and love, and did not see police as the enemy.
"We are not here to fight anyone, we are here to unite the people for freedom of choice," she said.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said New Zealanders and the Government respected peaceful protests.
"But when protesters go beyond that to intimidating, threatening, disrupting a city in this way, I'm sure those protesters will know the consequences of that."
He said it was always clear that "structures" could not be erected on Parliament's grounds without authorisation, and tents appeared to breach that rule.
Associate Justice Minister Willie Jackson said he was saddened by some of the anti-vaccine messages voiced at the protests.
"Too many angry people are threatening some of our workers, some of our MPs, and I'm disappointed by all that because I think we should be able to agree to disagree."
Jackson said he met some protesters and was glad he spoke with people present.
"I will always talk with people. And I thought we had a good conversation until they said they hated the boss," Jackson said, seemingly referring to the Prime Minister.
"Mandates are necessary, absolutely necessary, but obviously there's got to be a day when we get past that."
But Jackson said vaccine mandates were still important for now, to keep people and businesses safe.
Epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker said case numbers in another five or six days could near 600 and exceed 1000 in another five to six days after that.
"You wouldn't put a precise estimate but the direction of the curve is very consistent," he said.
"It is rising rapidly and we will obviously start to see numbers we've never seen before in New Zealand."