Many Covid-19 precautions that people have grown accustomed to two years into the pandemic seem increasingly irrelevant and discarded.
On Friday, it was confirmed that places of interest would no longer be published by the Department of Health, following the staggering number of 12,011 cases of Covid-19 reported in the past 24 hours.
Although much of the country continued to diligently scan QR codes from the Covid-19 Tracer app, the new lack of a requirement to self-isolate after visiting a place of interest had significantly reduced its relevance.
The government announced on Friday the move to phase 3 of Omicron’s response, meaning only positive Covid-19 cases and household contacts had to self-isolate. All other contacts just needed to monitor for symptoms.
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On top of that, health officials are considering both scrapping and strengthening the vaccine pass system. Officials are understood to be leaning towards eliminating the need for vaccine passes as restrictions and mandates ease.
Vaccine passes were introduced late last year and have been required by hotel businesses so they can run normal catering services, although numbers have sometimes been limited.
All passes expire no later than June 1, and while the Department of Health is considering all options, they could be scrapped sooner than that.
In a statement, Rachel Mackay, operations manager for the department’s National Immunization Program Group, said Omicron was guiding the thinking on vaccine passes.
“The spread of Omicron has changed the way New Zealand deals with the pandemic, hence the need for boosters,” Mackay said. “Modifications to MyVaccine Passes to reflect these changes with reminders, etc., are being considered, taking into account emerging clinical evidence and policy decisions.”
National Covid-19 Party spokesman Chris Bishop said it was time to ditch the vaccine passes.
“It is good to remember that when [the vaccine pass] was engineered, he was on Delta rather than Omicron, so the vaccine had a big impact on transmission and limiting transmission,” Bishop said. “Omicron even passes through people who are boosted, so it’s less effective.”
He said the technology should be kept in reserve, in case a new variant emerges and vaccines can stop its transmission.
Marisa Bidois, chief executive of the Restaurant Association, said members were largely in favor of vaccine passes when they were introduced, but extending them could create problems for the industry.
If extended, it is likely that the definition of a vaccinated person would become a person who has received their booster dose.
“Our industry is currently suffering from significantly reduced footfall as a result of the outbreak,” Bidois said. “We hope the government will weigh the health and safety benefits of including boosters in mandates against the economic impact on our industry of excluding these people from our establishments.”
Hospitality venues are already noticing the difference in attitude of people seeking contact tracing.
Wellington Cafe owner Nick Patel of Vanilla Coffee said that with the Phase 3 changes focusing on self-management, fewer people were scanning.
“Until yesterday everyone was scanning, but now they are still scanning, but not as much as before,” Patel said. “Everyone now depends on themselves to take care of themselves. People are talking about it and they’re still in the habit of scanning, but I think eventually they’ll lose that habit.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker said it was unclear how useful QR code reading information would be in the new “Omicron paradigm”.
“They always say to scan, so if you’re in an indoor setting and there’s a case there, that information can be used,” Baker said. “We still don’t know if it will be used.
“I think that’s a really ambiguous area, because the ministry might let people know that we’re going to suspend the need for scanning for a while.
“I think the reason they keep it is that there may be circumstances where you have a particularly concerning exposure.”
In countries that were further along in their Omicron wave, experts wondered if QR scanning was necessary.
A Department of Health spokesperson said it continued to encourage everyone to keep track of their whereabouts by scanning using the Covid Tracer app.
Abigail Dougherty / Stuff
Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare said Omicron will “disproportionately affect Maori and Pasifika communities” and announces $140 million for Pasifika and Maori responses to Omicron.
“While only close household contacts should self-isolate in Stage 3, it is useful to know that you have been exposed to someone with Covid-19.”
Initially, the government signaled that as part of Phase 3 of the Omicron response, household contacts and “family-type contacts” of positive Covid cases should be isolated.
When the Department of Health announced on Thursday that Phase 3 would begin on Friday, it narrowed that definition to household contacts only.
Kirk Hope of Business NZ said this was helpful both for businesses who may have been named as a place of interest and for customers who may have come into close contact.
“People in general have avoided scanning due to the fairly onerous isolation rules and fairly broad definitions of close contact.”
On Tuesday this week, there were 1.96 million scans, while three weeks earlier, on February 1, there were 2.47 million scans, according to data from the Ministry of Health.
Andrew Chen, a researcher at the University of Auckland, said it’s important to keep the habit of scanning because after this wave peaks, scanning will be an important tool in mastering Omicron.
“Once we’re on the other side, there will be a desire to try and take him out.”
Bishop said digitization is now a matter of personal responsibility.
“It’s a big mindset shift for people,” Bishop said. “I think [scanning] is always very useful to help you protect your friends and family.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signaled that terms will end after the peak of the Omicron outbreak.