Rapid tests free in NZ as Omicron looms

Ben McKayAAP
There have been six confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in New Zealand to date.
Camera IconThere have been six confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in New Zealand to date. Credit: AP

Jacinda Ardern has pledged rapid antigen tests will be free, warning New Zealanders to brace themselves for new daily COVID-19 case records when Omicron runs loose in the community.

After a summer free of the ultra-transmissible variant, health authorities fear an outbreak may be around the corner.

The health ministry issued an urgent release at 11pm on Wednesday confirming two fresh Omicron cases in the community.

By Thursday lunchtime, officials believe they had found another two cases among 39 new cases reported.

These include 21 in Auckland, 14 in Rotorua, two in Hastings, one in Christchurch and one on the West Coast.

There were 46 cases found at the border, with 21 people in hospital, and one in intensive care.

Speaking from at Labour's year-starting caucus retreat near New Plymouth, Ms Ardern said an Omicron outbreak was inevitable.

"Omicron is in every corner of the world at the moment," the prime minister said.

"We know that we will experience in New Zealand cases at a level we haven't experienced before."

Ms Ardern said case predictions were variable but could reach the "thousands or tens of thousands" daily.

In NZ's effort to prepare for Omicron, Ms Ardern said she was learning from other countries - including Australia.

There will be no repeat of the Australian outrage at RAT costs, with Ms Ardern moving to allow widespread use of the quick tests.

"They will be free. I repeat, testing in New Zealand for COVID-19 will be free," she said.

It remains to be seen whether NZ will suffer RAT shortages, with 4.6 million tests in the country of 5.1 million people and more on order.

Omicron is changing the country's longstanding suppression strategy, to one of "minimise and protect", noting the Australian experience.

"We can't stop Omicron but we can try to slow it down," Ms Ardern said.

"Rather than dealing with a tidal wave of cases, we work hard to keep cases as low as possible so our health system can manage and provide the care that people need.

"I'm not sure that we can directly make a comparison (with Australia). We've been very deliberate that we do want to preventatively move, and move very swiftly with public health restrictions to help.

"It's tending to look a bit more at South Australia and what they're experiencing more so than say the likes of the Victoria and New South Wales. They had a lot of seeding and made a lot of seeding from the border."

With Omicron surging in Australia and other countries, cases are arriving in quarantine at record rates for NZ.

The seven-day rolling average of border cases has overtaken the same average of daily community cases, heaping pressure on the quarantine system.

That has prompted public health experts to ask the government to restrict new arrivals until NZ until vaccination and booster rates have improved.

"We've had three of these near misses through different pathways," University of Otago public health professor Michael Baker told Radio NZ.

"A huge driver is the really large number of infected cases in New Zealand. We've never had such pressure on our borders.

"We need to reduce the flow of infected people into New Zealand immediately."

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