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Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Traffic light system needs revision – experts

It’s time to “move on” from the traffic light system and towards a more suitable model to fight the Omicron variant of Covid as top Government ministers meet today to consider our next move, a public health expert says.

Professor Michael Baker, of Otago University, said the system of red, orange or green lights was “far too crude” and Omicron required a more nuanced approach.

Government ministers with portfolios central to the Covid-19 response are set to meet today to discuss key issues, including whether or not Northland will move out of the red light level. A decision on any traffic light setting changes may then be announced on Thursday after Cabinet signs it off.

Ahead of the Government’s anticipated announcement, Baker said it would be “reasonable” for Northland to go into orange because it had very little transmission and vaccine coverage levels were coming up.

Baker said the traffic light system, along with contact tracing and vaccination, had worked well so far because they were adapted for the Delta variant – and had largely achieved its goal of getting adults vaccinated.

“There hasn’t been any super spreader episodes [over summer] as far as I know, so the traffic lights have contributed to a remarkable success in New Zealand suppressing the Delta variant to a level that none of us expected.”

However, he believed New Zealand now needed to move to a system that was more suitable for Omicron.

“Omicron will behave very differently; it needs a different set of interventions to dampen transmission.”

“Every single one of those pillars needs to change for Omicron. That’s by far our biggest threat. Everything needs to be revised to deal with this new virus that behaves quite differently.

There were 16 community cases of the virus yesterday, spread across Auckland, Lakes, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and the West Coast. The West Coast case was deemed historical.

Thirty people were in hospital with the virus – two of them in ICU.

Of the 67 close contacts of the MIQ worker at Auckland’s Stamford Plaza who tested positive for Omicron, 43 had already returned negative test results yesterday.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters Omicron’s arrival in the community was a matter of “when, not if” and that at some point, “we will see Omicron in the community”.

And if there was an Omicron outbreak, New Zealand would move to the red traffic light setting.

“What I expect is over the coming weeks to be able to share with you some of the additional preparation that has been done over and above the work that we did on Delta, for the specific issue of Omicron and what it represents,” Ardern said.

That would include changes to how testing, contact tracing and isolation was done, with these details expected to be shared in the coming weeks.

Baker said he’d want to see a Covid-19 response system that resembled the model he co-produced with other academics last year – which included more levels than what the system implemented by the Government included.

“It was a traffic light system, it was different from the one we finished up with which has really only got two control levels, red and orange, which is not enough.”

Auckland University associate professor of public health Dr Collin Tukuitonga said the traffic light system was good but a revision of the different measures within it was needed to better respond to Omicron.

“The traffic light system was clearly designed at the time of Delta and we know Delta would behave. When the traffic light system was introduced, we didn’t know about Omicron. Here and now, we have Omicron on the horizon and behaviour of it is quite different, we do need to revise the traffic light system.”

That included potentially limiting the number of people permitted to attend gatherings, particularly indoors, and stepping up the use of masks and the promotion of the boosters and vaccines for 5-11-year-olds.

“If we look at the situation in New South Wales, it was really explosive. I know that the whole point of the traffic light system was to avoid lockdowns but I suspect that we have to keep lockdowns on the table.”

There were 16 community cases of the virus yesterday – in Auckland, Lakes, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and the West Coast. Thirty people were in hospital with the virus, including two in ICU.

Otago University’s Professor Nick Wilson says the big issue on the table at the moment was establishing a new Omicron fit-for-purpose alert level system.

“The traffic light system is … well designed for vaccine use in indoor settings and it seems to be working pretty well, but even for that purpose, it’s out of date, because the boosters aren’t being yet built into that traffic light system.”

Meanwhile, Wilson said New Zealand was just “days, weeks” away from an Omicron outbreak given the large number of people who were infected coming into MIQ.

“[The Government’s] got the control to really give us a couple of months of time, potentially, to increase vaccination coverage, increase boosters, to bring along a new alert level system but for some reason, it’s just happy to let MIQ fill up with sick people with very high risk of an outbreak.”

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