In her first press convention of the 12 months, held exterior within the central North Island solar, prime minister Jacinda Ardern was virtually drowned out by a wave of cicada calls.
The clamour is synonymous with New Zealand summertime, a reminder that the nation had managed to grab a protracted, sizzling, largely unrestricted vacation season from the mouth of a late-2021 Delta outbreak.
However as New Zealanders trickle again from trip to their properties and workplaces, they accomplish that with the information that respite will most likely be fleeting.
“Omicron is knocking at our door now,” Ardern informed reporters over the thrill. “We received’t cease Omicron, however we will attempt to sluggish it down.”
At the least three circumstances of the brand new variant have been confirmed amongst border staff and their contacts in Auckland, and there are fears it made have already unfold into the broader group.
For now, New Zealand is one in all a really small handful of nations maintaining Omicron at bay. That path is an more and more lonely one – only a few medium-sized economies have stayed devoted to Covid-zero or heavy-duty suppression. China, the notable exception, faces increasing questions over how sustainable its elimination strategy is. Whereas Beijing stays fiercely dedicated to that path, nevertheless, New Zealand’s chief is now resigned to battle Omicron, describing its transmission throughout the nation as a matter of “when, not if”.
“Omicron is in each nook of the world in the meanwhile. And we additionally know that there can be different variants. And we all know that we are going to expertise in New Zealand circumstances at a stage that we haven’t skilled earlier than,” Ardern mentioned.
Within the meantime, the nation will flip to its tried and examined technique: delay. This has been a central tactic to New Zealand’s Covid game plan.
The nation had some benefits from the primary days of the pandemic: bodily isolation and distance purchased it time to look at the harm inflicted on abroad well being programs, and to reply by closing its borders and shifting to wipe out the illness in-country.
Time and again, Ardern’s authorities selected to maintain that preliminary benefit – choosing conservatism within the face of Covid, watching different nations’ trajectories, shopping for time to construct vaccination charges.
Epidemiologist and public well being prof Michael Baker says New Zealand’s “strategic benefit is that we will delay the inevitable.”
“The flip of phrase ‘delaying the inevitable’ [makes it sound] as if: why trouble? However I might say delaying the inevitable is an especially good thought with Covid-19,” he says.
Within the face of the highly-transmissible variant, nevertheless, questions linger about what New Zealand’s future will appear to be when widespread infections lastly arrive – and whether or not it has used its hard-won time to adequately put together for the approaching wave.
Whereas vaccination charges are excessive – about 94% of the grownup inhabitants is now double-vaccinated and youngsters aged 5-12 this month started receiving their jabs this month – the nation’s well being system is small and susceptible to overwhelm, particularly exterior main cities.
A authorities report on preparedness for Omicron, leaked to Māori Television this week, highlighted considerations that intensive care beds have been severely restricted, with simply one-third, or 108 ICU beds at present free. In a number of of the nation’s 20 district well being boards, there was no ICU care out there.
Even when preliminary proof holds and Omicron is a ‘milder’ variant, the pace at which it spreads may nonetheless shortly overwhelm New Zealand’s well being system, Baker mentioned.
“As everybody factors out, even a small proportion of an enormous quantity remains to be an enormous quantity,” he says.
Whereas Ardern has mentioned that an outbreak Omicron wouldn’t set off a lockdown, Baker says they might be essential to tamp down widespread transmission.
“That’s actually the essence of mitigation and flattening the height – is to say nicely, for all nations, their means to take care of very sick folks is at all times going to be restricted.”
Epidemiologist Dr Jennifer Summers mentioned by way of Science Media Centre that there have been “regarding gaps in New Zealand’s preparation for delaying and managing an Omicron outbreak” and Ardern ruling out lockdowns was “worrying”.
“The well being system can be underneath additional immense strain as soon as Omicron enters the group … ruling out potential public well being measures that might be used to minimise the impression of Omicron is short-sighted,” she mentioned.
From the opposition, the federal government has confronted criticism that it has squandered its window of alternative by failing to roll out widespread entry to fast testing, make large-enough will increase to hospital capability, or define clear plans for masks use or air flow in faculties or workplaces.
Within the face of Omicron, opposition chief Christopher Luxon mentioned, the federal government was “embarking on a second 12 months of Covid complacency: a scarcity of urgency, a scarcity of a plan, and making issues up as they go”.
Even because the nation fights to purchase itself a couple of extra weeks, its remaining Omicron-free days could also be restricted. Quickly, delay received’t be out there as a tactic, Baker mentioned, “given how quickly Omicron will arrive and unfold. That’s if it’s not spreading already – which it might be.”