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Covid 19 Omicron: Orange day dawns after curve flattened and return to office looms for many

Life under the orange traffic light setting, the big test for Wellington’s Transmission Gully & major road closure for Easter all in the latest New Zealand Herald headlines. Video / NZ Herald

Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins has defended New Zealand’s new mask-wearing rules, following confusion and criticism over why they must still be worn in shops – but not bars, restaurants or schools.

And he has fallen on the sword over his performance at the 1pm press conference on Wednesday, after it became clear he wasn’t certain about the new mask rules as New Zealand moves today into the orange-light setting.

“I made the mistakes yesterday and got a bit flustered and made it sound a lot more complicated than it is,” Hipkins told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking.

“I should have done better. I’ll own that. I made a mistake, I then got flustered and made more mistakes and made it worse. And it wasn’t okay, that wasn’t good enough. I should have been better prepared and I absolutely accept that.”

Retailers are fuming over the mask rules – Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said a lack of progress on them was infuriating. “While it is good news that the country is moving to orange, it is absurd that the Government is removing mask requirements in the hospitality and education sectors, but keeping them for retail.”

He said it was ridiculous to suggest masks were needed more in socially-distanced retail settings than in crowded nightclubs, classrooms or cafés.

“Masks are a source of significant anger and aggression from members of the public,” Harford said.

At the zaniest Covid press conference of 2022, Hipkins forgot what new mask rules were and was asked about allowing “pashing” in nightclubs but enforcing mask use in shops.

Hipkins told Hosking that mask rules remained in supermarkets and other shops because it was likely elderly and immunocompromised people had to visit these places. The rules were now removed for nightclubs and bars because people had a choice to attend those places.

“Masks are required where you have to go, so you have to go to the supermarket. If you’re going out to a nightclub, it’s a choice to go there and you’re taking on a higher degree of risk.”

Yesterday’s announcement on the move to orange was based on health criteria, he said.

Hipkins said positive signs – including a fall in new case numbers – meant it was time to relax restrictions and depart from the red setting. “We are over the peak, we are coming down the other side; in some places we’re coming well down”

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Many people are now expected to start returning to workplaces, in some cases after months working from home.

“There’s definitely excitement from workplaces and businesses, with good reason,” clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland told the Herald.

But he said a return to the office for thousands of people could present major mental health challenges.

For many, working from home was now normalised and some might struggle with long commutes and other realities of working at the office, Sutherland said.

He said some staff would be eager to keep working from home at least part of the time. “Research around it shows a few days at home are really good for people’s wellbeing and productivity. From one to three or four days at home seems to be the sweet spot.”

Companies should establish long-term plans to help employee mental health after the turmoil of lockdowns, Sutherland said. “We have made an awful lot of adjustments.”

On vaccine booster rates, Hipkins told Hosking it was going to be difficult to get to 90 per cent boosted – partly because so many people had now had Covid and had to wait three months before they could be boosted. Anywhere up to two million Kiwis may have now had Covid, he said, with many not knowing or reporting it.

He warned that a surge in influenza cases and a peak in Covid cases could push the country back into a red setting. The unknown was that the health system hadn’t had to deal with an influenza peak over the past two years.

Asked on the AM show if employers could mandate masks, Hipkins said ultimately it would depend on the context of what those people were doing and where they were doing it.

Employers have always been able to set their own rules across a whole range of things and if they chose to wear a mask at a private premises then they were their decisions to make.

He said the legal risk was different for a mask compared to a vaccination which was a greater infringement on someone’s rights.

“A mask is not that much different to a uniform. Some employers require people to wear a uniform and they can do that consistently, it’s not a great infringement on someone’s human rights to require them to wear a uniform for a job and masks I think would be more in that category than in the vaccination category.”

When asked when the Government might leave it up to people to decide how long they can stay home for when they are sick, Hipkins said they were not at that stage yet and there was still a lot of Covid-19 circulating in the community.

The goal was still to reduce the number of people who got Covid-19 and reduce the number of people who ended up in hospital to keep the trend pointing down, he said.

In terms of making household contacts self-isolate, Hipkins said it wouldn’t be changed immediately, but it was under constant review and he wouldn’t rule out changes to that in the future.

Businesses are largely expected to welcome the move to orange after growing weary of restrictions the red setting imposed.

Chris Hipkins confessed to a "bit of a mind blank" for forgetting what the rules for mask use were under the new orange setting. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Chris Hipkins confessed to a “bit of a mind blank” for forgetting what the rules for mask use were under the new orange setting. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Ahead of yesterday’s announcement, Auckland mayor Phil Goff and business leaders Michael Barnett and Viv Beck all told the Herald they were hoping for a move to orange.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon said the trouble Hipkins had articulating the latest mask advice showed the traffic light system was too complex.

“It underscores that it’s got very, very confusing very, very quickly.

“Fundamentally it’s a complication and confusion,” he added. “I’m just looking forward to having a mask-free dinner with my wife.”

“The traffic light system is redundant,” Act leader David Seymour said. “The Government has dismantled their own system to the point it has no reason to exist.”

He said the system was enacted to control crowd limits, encourage vaccination and for contact tracing – but none of those elements were relevant anymore.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said moving to orange was “fantastic” and would bring benefits today for the hospitality industry especially.

Ardern said people generally knew it was sensible to wear masks in supermarkets or other retail outlets.

“Generally, I encourage people to keep using them where it’s practical,” the PM added.

Dancefloor liasions and nightclub crowds are allowed under the new orange traffic light setting. Photo / 123RF
Dancefloor liasions and nightclub crowds are allowed under the new orange traffic light setting. Photo / 123RF

Hospitalisations were well down on previous weeks. In Auckland each of the three hospitals had fewer than 100 patients with Covid-19 for the first time since late February.

University of Otago epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker was confident Auckland had passed the Omicron peak, but other regions were still seeing high case numbers.

“In some parts of New Zealand, around 80 per cent of schools have got cases – so for most of the country, this risk is far from disappearing,” he told the Herald.

“You only have to look to Northland, where case numbers have only dropped a third from its peak.”

Under the orange setting, the isolation period for people with Covid-19 is still seven days.

Meanwhile, Associate Professor Donna Cormack of the National Māori Pandemic Group said other viral illnesses such as flu could compound any future Covid-19 resurgence.

Immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said 72.7 per cent of eligible people had received booster shots but only 57.2 per cent of Māori and 59.3 per cent of Pacific peoples had.

University of Otago statistics expert Dr Matthew Parry said nationwide daily case numbers were down but the picture was not uniform.

“In the West Coast, daily case numbers are probably still rising, and in Northland and Southern DHBs, daily case numbers remain stubbornly close to their peaks.”

Modeller Prof Michael Plank said it was good to relax traffic light settings when cases and hospitalisations were falling in most parts of the country.

He said hospitalisations and staff absences put intense strain on the healthcare system but New Zealand had still flattened the wave of the Omicron curve.

The Ministry of Education said at orange, face masks were no longer required at school.

But the ministry said it strongly encouraged students and staff in Years 4 and above to keep wearing face masks.

The next traffic light system review is expected in mid-May.

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