A list of advice for avoiding Covid this summer provides a stark contrast to the broad public health messaging of a year ago, despite case numbers being much higher

The Government has put out its summer advice for holidaying in a pandemic as Kiwis head off on the traditional summer break.

But it’s left other political parties wondering if a to-do list relying on individual responsibility can do the job of a coordinated health response.

As many New Zealanders hit the road for the Christmas and New Year period, case numbers are spiking.

A group of people the size of Whanganui came down with Covid in the past week.

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It’s the most Covid-hot the country has been since August, although as health mandates such as signing in and masks on public transport have fallen away, circumstances could be markedly different.

Summer means outdoor congregation, but while groups amass, they’ll be more likely to do so in ventilated air. At the same time, it also means New Zealanders are on the move – city-dwellers flocking to small beach towns and potentially bringing the virus with them.

This time last year, the Government was in the thick of its ‘Two Shots for Summer’ vaccination campaign, and Kiwis were just getting used to reaching for their vaccine passes at the door of every cafe and restaurant.

At the same time, case numbers were on a rolling daily average of around 60 – right now, they’re closer to 5000.

The arrival of the Omicron variant saw that 60 rocket up in February to reach a weekly average of around 15,000 in early March, and since then we’ve gotten used to those big numbers.

It’s a complacency that may have reached into the halls of power as well, with the Government issuing a series of steps to avoid Covid over the summer in a move Green Party Covid spokesperson Teanau Tuiono said was not up to snuff.

“Right now, the Government should be gearing up for a massive summer Covid communications campaign, not just sending out a media release and hoping for the best,” he said.

He said the Government’s message had shifted from health messaging that focused on the collective to a more individualistic tack over the past year.

“A major component of the Government response at the beginning of the pandemic was the communication of collective public health measures,” he said. “We need to communicate these again. Not just urging individual caution – but a concerted public health push.”

Announced by Ministry of Health deputy-director Dr Andrew Old at a press conference last month where he also warned New Zealand was not out of the Covid woods just yet, the summer advice cautions Kiwis to be prepared if they want a “safe as summer”.

Covid Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said following the latest review, the Government had decided to leave current restrictions as they were. Instead it appears the move is to remind Kiwis of the voluntary things they can do to keep Covid-free.

“Ahead of summer, we are encouraging New Zealanders to take simple precautions to keep a lid on Covid-19 and ensure our hard-working health workers get the break they deserve,” she said.

Top of the list is getting a booster shot. However, although second booster eligibility recently opened up to Māori and Pasifika over 40, over three million New Zealanders are still not eligible.

“If you’re now eligible then book in and get boosted before going to see whānau or heading away for the holidays,” Verrall said.

One tool in the toolbox still relatively shiny and new is antiviral medication.

“Many people have been taking advantage of available antiviral medications, with 4000 doses being administered each week currently,” Verrall said. “We know this has been keeping people out of hospital and reduced the impact of Covid-19 on the health system.”

However, research spearheaded by antiviral manufacturers Pfizer found even those eligible for the treatments reported low levels of knowledge of available treatments back in October.

Pfizer New Zealand medical director Dr Krishan Thiru said obliviousness towards such treatments could prevent quick action on the part of the recently-infected.

“It’s critically important that everyone is aware that these treatments exist because time is of the urgency,” he said. “If these antiviral treatments are to be used – and effectively – they need to be commenced within five days of Covid.”

However at present, antiviral treatments are only available to people who fit the criteria. Namely, these are people with a range of health vulnerabilities, Māori or Pacific people aged 50 or over, anyone aged 50 or over with fewer than two vaccinations, or anybody over 65.

It means a significant chunk of the Government’s summer advice won’t mean much for younger people, who still await the chance for second booster shots or antiviral treatments.

Tuiono said it seemed inevitable that at this point that many people would be dealing with Covid during this Christmas break.

“Whatever way you look at it, Covid will be a feature of many people’s summer break,” he said, pointing to modelling reported by RNZ which suggests one in 20 New Zealanders could have Covid in the week of Christmas.

“While strong public health messaging is vital, the reality is that public health measures work best when they become part of our everyday lives,” said Tuiono. “As a minimum the Government also needs to be able to guarantee clean air inside buildings through air quality monitoring, strong ventilation standards, and air purification.”

Other advice the Ministry of Health has given recently includes having a plan for if you get sick while on holiday, keeping plans to isolate in place or make it home if you have to. 

Other suggestions include hosting events outdoors where possible – however with capricious weather expected, compliance will likely depend on the colour of the clouds for most hosts.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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