January 24, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

All parts of New Zealand moved up to red in the country’s traffic light COVID restrictions framework at midnight last night, following a number of Omicron cases that were not linked to the nation’s managed quarantine system for international arrivals.

At the red setting, the maximum number of people at an event – if everyone is fully vaccinated – is 100 people. For events with unvaccinated attendees, the limit is just 25.

Ten new cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has largely been kept out of New Zealand thanks to its strong international border policy, have been found within the same family who travelled from the Nelson Marlborough region in the South Island to Auckland in the North Island for a wedding and other social gatherings in mid-January. Events the family attended were also attended by “well over” 100 others and there have already been additional COVID-19 cases detected in another wedding guest and a flight attendant on the same flight as the family. The flight attendant also worked on several more domestic flights before testing positive.

“We don’t yet have a clear lead on the index case that links this family to the border, as we have with our other Omicron cases to date,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday.

“That means Omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson Marlborough region, if not elsewhere.

“On that basis, as we have previously signalled, the whole of New Zealand will move into the red setting of the traffic light system at 11.59pm tonight, Sunday, 23 January.”

Ardern said the objective in the first phase of response to the outbreak was to try to stamp out pockets of Omicron cases as much as possible, but that it was expected that cases would inevitably rise, possibly quickly.

“Our strategy is to slow the spread of Omicron down.

“Even if your part of the country doesn’t yet have Omicron, the evidence from overseas suggests that it moves very quickly.

“We know it’s already in both the North and South Islands and that cases have been on a number of flights.

“Our goal at red is to slow the spread of the virus. Again, the evidence from overseas is that those places that were slow to act have had more severe outbreaks.”

Ardern broke down the government’s response to what it anticipates could be its largest outbreak of the pandemic, with cases potentially reaching 1,000 a day within a matter of weeks. Following a Delta outbreak which started in August 2021, the country has successful brought COVID case numbers down to a handful a day.

The three phases of the response are likely to follow some of the same measures which have been introduced in Australia as COVID has become widespread, including increased use of rapid antigen tests, changes to contact tracing, isolation rules and close contact rules.

Currently, confirmed cases in New Zealand are still required to isolate for 14 days and close contacts for 10.

In a note to members today, industry association Business Events Industry Aotearoa Chief Executive Lisa Hopkins acknowledged the struggles facing the industry but pointed out a large proportion of events in the first quarter of 2021 were for 100 attendees or fewer.

“In Q1, 2021, New Zealand hosted over 1,100 events of 100 pax or less, 77 percent of the total number of events hosted that quarter.

“There is no reason why events of 100 pax or less should be cancelling, although I am also hearing of temporary travel embargoes being put in place by some organisations, including some Government departments.

“I know that our industry has suffered horrendously and that many are feeling broken and bruised.

“The best thing we as an industry can do is ensure any event which is going ahead is done with safety for the sake of guests and staff,” said Hopkins, after flagging that New Zealand’s Minister for pandemic response, Chris Hipkins, had spoken of a coming transition from pandemic to endemic for COVID-19.