Covid Response Minister Ayesha Verrall is open to reducing isolation periods in the future, but says the middle of winter is not the time to be doing that.

“Now is not the right time with the pressures we are under, so it’s seeing how this current wave resolves,” Verrall told Newsroom.

The Cabinet committee that reviews Covid settings is scheduled to do so early this month, and Verrall says reducing the isolation period is “under active consideration’’.

There are already some quite limited settings where critical health workers with Covid can return to work early, provided they’re staffing Covid wards where all patients are positive, and if the worker’s absence would put life at risk.

Critical health workers in non-Covid wards can return on day six of their isolation period provided they return negative rapid antigen tests on days five and six and are no more than mildly symptomatic.

But Verrall told Newsroom that system had already proven that often people aren’t well enough to return earlier than seven days, and few people had utilised it as a result.

“In terms of the hypothesised economic benefit from reducing absenteeism in that way, we’re not sure that’s really there,” she said.

“All public health interventions depend on people being motivated to sustain them over time.”
– Ayesha Verrall

For that reason Ministers will also review whether a testing-to-work regime would be more effective than a set period of days in isolation, as is currently the case.

“That’s something officials are giving advice on.”

There is also a critical worker list that allows household contacts to continue working providing they meet certain criteria.

The critical services list includes those working in food production, key public services, power and water supplies, transport, critical financial services, news media, social welfare and human and animal health and welfare.

Verrall is open to widening the critical services list as well if it will help get people back to work in a safe way.

The National Party has been calling for the isolation period to reduce from seven to five days since February.

On Tuesday Covid response spokesperson Chris Bishop said he also wanted to see a test-to-work regime more widely used for household contacts and not limited to critical workers.

Mask mandates require ‘public licence’

With Covid cases and winter illnesses like flu spiking in recent weeks there have been calls from some communities for mask mandates in wider settings.

Masks are currently only mandated indoors at public venues, such as museums and libraries, healthcare facilities, vet clinics, retail businesses, courts, local and central government agencies, police, and public areas operated by NZ Post.

The education and health ministries have “strongly recommended” schools require mask-wearing for Year 4 students and above for the first four weeks of this term.

“I don’t agree that people think [Covid’s] over or there’s some really simplistic thought about it, I just think with everything it’s hard to sustain behaviours over time.”
– Ayesha Verrall

Verrall told Newsroom there’s a “complicated relationship between public licence and the reality of Covid”.

“All public health interventions depend on people being motivated to sustain them over time.”

That includes everything from vaccinations to hand-washing and masks.

“So, I see the big challenge for health being not about mandates, but about how we really keep that awareness and motivation going in the population.”

Verrall said it was important to make masks widely available and, even where mandates don’t exist, be really clear about what the recommendation is around wearing them.

“A lot of people may have reduced their mask use because they’ve recently had Covid, so it’s important we’re out there saying you can be reinfected by Covid.

“I don’t agree that people think [Covid’s] over or there’s some really simplistic thought about it, I just think with everything it’s hard to sustain behaviours over time,” Verrall said.

All these requirements fall under the Covid Protection Framework, also known as the traffic light system, and whether that will continue to be the right model will also have to be reviewed.

The legislation that allows for the public health orders has a sunset clause that expires in April next year, she said.

Since vaccine mandates were stripped out of the traffic light system on April 4, the only vaccination requirements left are for health and disability workers and for overseas tourists.

Border open for vaccinated tourists

New Zealand’s border reopened to all remaining tourists and visa holders on Sunday, and while most airlines have dropped vaccination requirements, only New Zealand citizens and residents can arrive unvaccinated.

Australia has dropped its vaccination requirements for tourists but New Zealand doesn’t look set to follow suit anytime soon.

Verrall told Newsroom the main consideration around letting unvaccinated tourists into the country is what impacts that would have on the health system.

Despite it being summer, the United Kingdom, European and some American hospitals are under considerable pressure at the moment after dropping most public health restrictions.

On that basis, Verrall says she still has “considerable uncertainty’’ as to whether vaccination requirements for tourists will drop in time for New Zealand’s summer.

There are other barriers too, she says, like how many tourists will be able to travel with availability of flights and the overall disruption in the global travel system.

“The point I’d make is I don’t necessarily see summer as the relief to these problems because of what I’ve seen overseas.”

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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