Otago University’s Dr Nick Wilson and Dr Michael Baker said the country’s health system would not be able to cope with an outbreak of the new variant, which they forecast will be in “only a matter of time”.
They said that Omicron would make its way into the community due to border failures, as well as the country’ Covid ‘traffic light;’ system not being fit for purpose.
Despite boasting high vaccination rates, Dr Wilson urged caution over the number of adults who have received a booster jab, and noted the vaccine rollout for children aged between five and 11 have not started yet.
The country received its first shipment of Pfizer’s paediatric vaccine at the weekend, and intends to begin child vaccinations from January 17.
Omicron’s short incubation period also means New Zealand’s system for identifying and containing new community cases would be much less effective.
Both experts expressed concern over the country’s traffic light system, with Dr Wilson describing it as “not fit for purpose” while Dr Baker called for the Government to reinstate its more stringent alert-level system, which officials scrapped last year.
He said: “The traffic light system won’t help us very much because it was never designed to dampen down transmission, it was only designed to nudge people towards vaccination.”
Until these weaknesses were fixed, Dr Baker added that, “we need to hugely turn down the tap of people arriving in New Zealand”.
This was agreed by Dr Wilson, who added that the “priority is to have a tighter border so that we don’t have to vaccinate kids and conduct a booster program during an outbreak.”
A further 64 positive Covid infections were recorded within New Zealand’s oversubscribed managed isolation facilities (MIQ) for incoming travellers over the weekend.
The pair want to see a “significant tightening” of the number of New Zealanders entering the country.
Dr Wilson said the Government should require rapid antigen testing for travellers immediately prior to allowing them on flights, and cap the number of travellers coming from high-risk countries such as the UK.
But campaign groups such as Grounded Kiwis want the Government to make it easier for overseas New Zealanders to return home.
The country’s borders have been shut since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Spokesperson Martin Newell said Grounded Kiwis strongly agreed with universal rapid antigen testing for travellers and strictly limiting travellers’ exposure to each other. However, he emphasised that “you can’t deny the right of New Zealanders to be able to return to their country”.
Dr Wilson, however, said: “The priority for the government has to be on protecting the 5 million New Zealanders in New Zealand.”