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Extraordinary COVID-19 powers wound down – Expert Reaction

The COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 is being significantly narrowed to allow for a limited set of public health measures.

Government will no longer have the power to close borders, order lockdowns or enforce vaccine mandates and other particularly stringent health protections, unless new emergency legislation is passed. Seven-day isolation periods, free rapid tests, financial support for isolating people who cannot work from home and masks in healthcare settings will all remain requirements after the epidemic notice expires on Thursday.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Professor Michael Baker, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“Government’s announcement today about revisions to the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, and the general direction of its response, strike a good balance. The powers that are being revoked were for an earlier phase of the Covid-19 response where considerable legal powers were needed to support New Zealand’s highly successful elimination strategy.

“Since the Omicron variant has been circulating widely in New Zealand, we have adopted a mitigation approach which has aimed at reducing the harms caused by the pandemic. This goal involves both limiting transmission, particularly to the most vulnerable, plus measures to minimise the consequences of infection.

“It is therefore good to see that Government has retained the ability to require self-isolation for cases, household contacts, and close contacts and well as requiring mask use in key indoor settings. It is also important that Government has kept the ability to implement measures to limit the introduction of new Covid-19 variants from overseas. These measures include the ability for mandatory mask use on inbound flights, pre-departure and post-arrival testing requirements, and self-isolation and self-quarantine for those arriving from any country.

“I am pleased to see that this announcement flags that further work is needed to develop general pandemic legislative. We need to plan for future pandemic threats and the tools that may be needed to manage them, building on the Covid-19 experience. There is a wide range of plausible future pandemic scenarios ranging from mild to far more severe than Covid-19. New Zealand needs a simple, versatile, and science informed system for assessing the level of risk posed by these pandemic threats along with associated proportionate responses.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

Associate Professor Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Associate Professor, Dean’s Department, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“It was announced today that the Covid-19 Epidemic Notice will be revoked, expiring this Thursday 20th October 2022. The Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 will be extended, although minimal baseline measures will be retained, to allow for some public health measures for countering new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and further waves of Covid-19.

“The 7-day self-isolation measures for Covid-19 positive individuals would remain, in addition to mask-use in certain healthcare settings. Self-isolation periods for household contacts could still be re-introduced, along with traveller conditions and requirements for those coming to Aotearoa New Zealand. Travellers arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand will no longer have to complete an online New Zealand Traveller Declaration.

“Currently in Aotearoa New Zealand, Covid-19 is still causing problems for many people, with new variants and subvariants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continuing to emerge overseas, responsible for current Covid-19 waves sweeping over other countries at this time.

“Covid-19 cases in Aotearoa New Zealand are on the rise again, as new versions of SARS-CoV-2 continue to circulate, with community figures likely higher than those being reported still impacting on hospitals in particular, primary and community care and support systems, families, communities, schools, workforces and our most vulnerable.

“Covid-19 related deaths in Aotearoa New Zealand are sadly continuing to occur – with sympathies and condolences respectfully extended to all family, whānau, kāinga, aiga and friends impacted and affected.

“The improved accessibility to antiviral medications has been an important step, given the inequitable and disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our most vulnerable in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Simple public health measures that include vaccines/boosters, masks, isolating when sick, proper ventilation and other public health measures, remain important steps to help protect against the severe impact of Covid-19, against reinfection, and also other illnesses still circulating at this time – and especially for our most vulnerable.

“These public health measures are simple steps we can all manage at this time.”

No conflicts of interest declared.