On 20 January 2022 the Government addressed how New Zealand would respond to an inevitable outbreak of the COVID-19 variant Omicron. It was announced that lockdowns will not be imposed, but that following evidence of community transmission the entire country will move into the red traffic light setting.
New Zealand moved to red at midnight on Sunday 23 January 2022.
What does life look like at the ‘red’ traffic light setting?
Retail and hospitality businesses can remain open, with hospitality having Vaccine Pass restrictions. Face coverings must be worn by customers and staff, and the same limits on capacity as those enforced for public gatherings apply.
Schools and education providers can continue operating in person. Children and parents cannot be prevented from going to school based on their vaccination status, however teachers and staff must be fully vaccinated to have contact with children. Children aged Year 4 and up are required to wear face coverings when indoors. Tertiary students can attend classes in person if they hold a Vaccine Pass.
There are no travel restrictions within New Zealand, although some transport providers such as airlines and ferries will require either a Vaccine Pass or a negative Covid-19 test. Face coverings must be worn on public transport and in taxis and ride shares.
Workplaces and employees in red
Many media outlets are reporting that working from home is encouraged or recommended under the red setting of the traffic light system. This was the guidance when the traffic light system was first announced in the last quarter of 2021. This has now been amended to state: “Workplaces can open at red, with the option of working from home if your employer considers it is appropriate for your job.”
On Wednesday 26 January 2022 the government provided more information about what we can expect as community numbers of Omicron continue to grow. New Zealand’s public health response will consist of three phases, with the objective of Phase One being to keep case numbers as low as possible. Cases will be required to isolate for 14 days and contacts for 10 days.
In Phase Two, New Zealand will see a significant increase in case numbers and resources will be focused on protecting the most vulnerable members of our community. Critical workers who are identified as close contacts can return to work if they are asymptomatic and can provide a negative result on a rapid antigen test. An individual will be classified as a ‘critical worker’ if they are working to provide essential goods and services like food or if they play a key role in our response to COVID-19.
Entry into the final Phase will see case numbers in the thousands and will involve a change in the definition of ‘contacts’ to household and household-like contacts only. Health services will be concentrated on those with the highest need. Critical workforces will continue operating through use of rapid antigen testing for employees.
In light of the inevitable spread of Omicron across the community and ultimately workplaces, we are working with employers at the moment who are preparing for mass absenteeism (either because staff are close contacts or have contracted COVID). Some employers are requiring staff to work from home now to err on the side of caution. Where this is not possible or not best for the business, others are arranging for their staff to be on shifts to avoid the full workforce being out at one time.
We are starting to see some very creative solutions to what may be quite a big problem in a short amount of time.
Click here for other Employment Law articles.