New Zealand has shifted to the most stringent level of its traffic light COVID-19 restriction system after cases of the Omicron variant were reported in its most populated city, Auckland, and the Nelson-Marlborough region.
The shift took place just before midnight on Sunday, following a press conference by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier that day. Ardern stated that the red setting will remain in place for “some weeks” according to local outlet Stuff.
A total of nine cases were reported, all within a single family that had flown to Auckland from Nelson on Jan. 13 for a wedding and several other events between Jan. 15–16. Over 100 people were estimated to be at the various gatherings.
On Monday, eight new cases of the Omicron variant were reported including five in Auckland, one in Palmerston North, and two in the Nelson-Tasman region. As of Jan. 24, 19 people have tested positive for Omicron in the community.
An Air New Zealand flight attendant, who was on the flight to Auckland with the infected family, has since tested positive for the variant and has worked on four flights since then, between Jan. 16 and Jan. 20. The flight attendant was reported to be in good spirits according to company CEO Greg Foran.
The airline has since stood down 15 crew members who happen to be close contacts of the infected flight attendant, according to local outlet Radio NZ.
“I understand that a couple of the other crew are showing symptoms at this stage,” Foran told the outlet.
“This will move quite quickly and we do anticipate we’ll be dealing with quite a few more cases,” he added.
Since September 2021, the airline had made it mandatory for its aircrew and customer-facing employees to be fully vaccinated. As of Dec. 14 last year, all passengers above 12 years of age have also been required to be fully vaccinated or to present a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before departure.
Foran said that the company will also be upgrading face coverings to N95 masks for 5,000 or so customer-facing roles, as well as keeping seats empty to ensure social distancing between passengers and crew. Furthermore, vaccination requirements for international passengers will be in place from Feb. 1.
The origin case for the Omicron community cluster still remains unclear. The government intends to announce its three-stage plan to manage Omicron on Jan. 26.
Under the red setting of the traffic light system, businesses can operate as usual for the vaccinated, with additional restrictions on gatherings and tighter vaccine pass requirements.
The unvaccinated, however, will face restrictions similar to a level-three lockdown.