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The Government will today reveal how it will try to step up the fight against Omicron as the highly infectious Covid-19 variant spreads across the country, with predictions of up to 50,000 cases a day.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced further measures, including new mask mandates and increased use of rapid antigen tests (RATs).
The Government has also boosted PCR testing, or nasal swabs, to a surge capacity of 78,000 a day - with ability to maintain that level for up to seven days.
This traditional test and trace approach will be the focus of phase one of the Omicron response, with phases two and three to be announced by Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall today, including how critical workers who are close contacts will be able to use RATs instead of self-isolating.
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Ardern, speaking to media after a Cabinet meeting yesterday, said as part of the first phase of combating Omicron, in the red setting masks must now be worn at businesses that serve food and drink.
Face coverings must also now be "actual masks", and workers mandated to be vaccinated must now also wear a "medical-grade mask".
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker welcomed new mask rules, but added they still didn't go far enough.
Baker said an equity problem could arise where some families couldn't afford the highest quality ones.
"This is really where the Government has a big role to play, in stating standards and also enabling more access to suitable, quality masks. More needs to be done on both of those things in the time that we still have available."
Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said the Government needed to tighten up on those who were exempt from mask wearing and follow a similar process as they had with vaccination passes.
"There are absolutely some genuine cases where people can't wear masks for some sense of medical reason. But our sense is that the number of those people is probably no more than a few hundred, yet we know there are tens of thousands of people out there who are claiming to be exempt from wearing a mask."
Speaking to RNZ, Harford said there weren't too many customers who weren't wearing proper masks and often those who did try and pull their T-shirt up over their face was because they had forgotten to take a mask with them.
He urged people who didn't have masks to go out and get one and called on the Government to give real clarity around what masks were acceptable.
However, he said there was a group of people who had self-identified themselves as being exempt from wearing masks and just didn't want to do it.
"My message for them is Covid doesn't discriminate, you need to wear a mask of find some other way to do your shopping."
Owner of Devonport's Manuka Cafe & Restaurant Peter Reeves said he was worried the mask protocol changes would discourage the public from visiting cafes and bars.
"It's going to put people off coming out, my weekly take is going to go down and I've got no access to any support this time round, so from a business point of view, I'm extremely nervous.
"All these little things are getting drip-fed to us. Trying to keep up with all the rules is tricky. Then I have to educate my customers every day about it."
Nick Davenport, founder of mask manufacturer Lanaco which makes the New Zealand equivalent to a N95 mask, said the Government not pushing for the N95 masks was a "misinformed decision" and the information and science behind it differed from the new policy.
Davenport, speaking with Newstalk ZB this morning, believed the reason for it was because there weren't sufficient stockpiles in New Zealand and his company was trying to work with the Government and other industries to increase the supply.
He rejected director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield's earlier claims that N95 masks that were not perfectly fitted could do more harm than good and said it was "contradictory to the current science and they are perfectly useful in a less than perfect fitted situation".
"An N95 mask with both people wearing it will provide sufficiently greater protection than all other forms of non-respiratory masks."
He said the mask policy was still a bit confusing and required more clarity.
Lanaco had been hit by a large spike in demand, but had plenty of capacity to manufacture more.
Auckland University aerosol chemist Joel Rindelaub says because Omicron is more transmissible, cloth masks will not be as effective as high quality masks.
"If you are exposed to Omicron like in an indoor environment, for instance, it's probably not going to help you as much as these better varieties," Rindelaub told Newstalk ZB's Tim Dower.
He said if more people start using higher grade surgical or N95 masks, it will definitely help stop the spread of Covid.
"If used correctly and we have enough uptake, it can make a difference."
Rindelaub said the Government should have a role to play in providing better quality - and therefore more expensive - masks to "key people" within the population.
"They are going to be a little bit more expensive, so there are going to be population that might not be able to access them.
"So the Government should be giving these to people that are more vulnerable.
"They should be giving these to people like teachers that could be exposed in indoor environments, essential workers...so we have better uptake for key people within New Zealand."
Rindelaub said he hoped to see better guidelines announced today that could help control the spread of Omicron when it comes to aerosol transmission - such as ventilation guidelines.
"Air changes is something that is critical with aerosol transmission - which is why when you're outside, there doesn't seem to be a high rate of transmission.
"But when you're indoors, where there's that lack of aerosol, is when things are very high risk."
The first phase in the fight against Omicron would continue the same testing, tracing and isolation settings as before, with PCR capacity boosted from 39,000 a day to 58,000, and the ability to surge to 77,600 tests where necessary for a seven-day period.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield said those figures were based on pooling testing. This involved pooling a group of samples that were likely to be negative together and running them as one test, effectively boosting testing capacity.
However, as the proportion of positive results grew - in Australia it has got to over 30 per cent - and each test needed to be run individually, this pooling ability was affected.
Bloomfield said the singular daily testing capacity was about 38,000 tests a day.
As the outbreak grew, the next phases of the response would include using RATs, for community transmission and for critical workers who were close case contacts so they could continue working without needing to self-isolate - a "Test to Return to Work approach".
There were 4.6 million RATs currently in the country, and 14.6 million more were expected over the next five weeks, Ardern said. A potential 22 million would also arrive over the same period.
Baker said the Government's position to keep using PCR tests for current testing, and use rapid antigen testing when the outbreak widened, made sense.
"At the moment, we are still treating Omicron like Delta, which is absolutely the right thing to do, given we still have plenty of capacity for testing, and we're still able to contact trace," he said.
"Rapid antigen testing will be very important when we're absolutely awash with Omicron."
New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science president Terry Taylor told Newstalk ZB he was skeptical of the PCR testing capacity, saying he thought 60,000 a day was more believable.
In Australia daily testing capacity had been affected within days of widespread community transmission, based on pooling issues, but also as lab workers themselves became infected.
Once Omicron was widespread in the community RATs would be essential, Taylor said, and he was interested in Verrall's announcement today to hear how that would proceed, and how laboratory staffing would be managed as people got sick.
Epidemiologist Arindam Basu told RNZ rapid antigen tests were appropriate for certain settings, but believed it was sensible to restrict them from the general public due to their unreliability.
Rapid Antigen Tests would work well for now, but if the number of cases go up then it was a different proposition, he said.
Speaking on the new mask rules, Basu said there needed to be more education and instructions on how to wear masks.
Disposable masks were better than cloth masks, while N95 were best for healthcare workers.
National leader Chris Luxon told RNZ the Government was scrambling and had only approved nine different rapid antigen tests for use here, compared to Australia which had more than 60.
The PM has said there are 4.6 million tests in the country, but doesn't say if they are held by the Government or the private sector, he said.
Luxon said some very good employers had proactively sourced their own tests and it looked like the Government was now commandeering those supplies and taking them for themselves.
Luxon said the big problem they had was there was only a "handful of tests in the country" and the next orders weren't due until early March and then possibly April/May.
"It's all a little bit too late."
National supported contacts of Covid cases to be able to return to work after taking a Rapid Antigen Test, but believed the definition of a critical worker should be as broad as possible to minimise disruption.
In a perfect world Luxon would have both tests - PCR and Rapid Antigen - going and this had been routine around the world for more than a year.
In other countries people could do the test at home and then upload the result on a Government website.
The only reason New Zealand was "staging and phasing" tests was because it didn't have supply, he said.
And on Newstalk ZB last night, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson defended the Government's position on the lack of earlier supply of rapid antigen tests (RATs).
ZB host Heather Du Plessis-Allan put it to Robertson that 14.6 million tests were essentially only a two-week supply.
"It depends how you use them. At the moment we're in the fortunate position that we can continue to use PCR tests because we can manage the volumes. Clearly, we want to bring as many in as we can. Our focus is on making sure we don't have what happened in Australia where supply chains, critical workers and their utilities and so on haven't been able to go to work.
"Our test to work regime will manage that and you'll hear more about that (today)."
Du Plessis-Allan: "Now that we're in the situation where we actually do not have the very thing that we need, do you regret keeping that ban on RATs until last month?"
Robertson: "What we've tried to do is have rapid antigen testing available where it's appropriate. PCR testing remains the most important thing we can have. It is the most accurate and we can manage with it. Getting more orders in - that's been happening over the last few months. But it is a very competitive environment. We haven't needed the volume of rapid antigen tests up to now. We have a good supply coming in. And we're going to try and bring forward what we can."
Du Plessis-Allan: "But a part of running a country is having the foresight to see that you are going to need something So did anybody sit down and say to the Minister of Health... either Cabinet, yourself or the prime minister, or anybody else, say to Ashley Bloomfield, you need to lift that ban on rapid antigen tests now."
Robertson: "We've been working through the Ministry for some considerable time on the role of rapid antigen testing. But the process of getting approvals, yes we've been asking the Ministry for some time to get that done. We've now got at least nine different suppliers approved and more coming on all the time and a number of private sector companies in New Zealand have had stockpiles of rapid antigen testing so they have been able to get them. But equally, we're in a global environment where everybody's after them at the same time. I don't think there's been a ban on them."
Du Plessis-Allan: "Minister, did you say there hasn't been a ban on them? There has."
Robertson: "Clearly a number of corporates have had stockpiles."
Du Plessis-Allan: "That's because, Minister, there was a pilot that was allowed to take place in August after they begged you guys publicly. There was a ban."
Robertson: "What it is, is the Ministry of Health have said consistently to us that PCR is the most accurate format."
Du Plessis-Allan: "Rather than changing the subject, let's just get this clear. Are you denying that there was a ban on these tests?"
Robertson: "What I'm saying is... I'm accepting that we've had PCR as our focus. We've been working through with the private sector, how they can best use rapid antigen testing, and a number of them have stocks and we have stocks of them as a government. They are now a more significant part of our strategy going forward."
Du Plessis-Allan: "You would accept that there was a ban by your Government on rapid antigen tests until December?"
Robertson: "I accept the Ministry of Health have managed the process by which they approved them and yes, they haven't been a large part of the system up to now but that's because the PCR tests have been able to deal with what we need to deal with."
Meanwhile, Ardern also said despite community transmission of Omicron the Government was sticking to its staged plans to reopen the border from late February, with specific dates to come after the next two meetings of Cabinet.
Yesterday, 25 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the community, including 10 new Omicron cases and the variant has appeared in Tauranga after earlier being detected in Auckland and Motueka.
Hipkins also announced yesterday the Government ordered 5000 portable air cleaners, to ensure schools were ventilated enough to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
- Additional reporting: Julia Gabel, Jamie Morton