Phase 3: Retailers must be given green light now to sell rapid antigen tests – Barnett

Hospitality and small businesses around the country are welcoming the Government’s announcement of moving New Zealand to phase 3 of the Omicron outbreak response from midnight tonight.

But they say shortages of rapid antigen tests (RATS), lack of enough financial support and criteria for determining “critical workers” were ruling out most of the workers from their respective industries.

Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett said: “the good news is that we are moving to phase 3 of our Omicron response, limiting isolation to only really close contacts of a case.

“But the bad news is that RATS are still not available to all so we can move forward together,” he said.

“It’s all very well reducing isolation to a case’s household contacts but the Government needs a dose of reality, stop going down the track of officials determining who are critical workers and eligible for RATS and accelerate the introduction of retail sales for the public,” he said.

“RATS coming to a supermarket shelf near you ‘soon’ is not good enough when the system and supply are overwhelmed by demand.

“Every New Zealand resident should be able to take a RAT test right now to confirm they are safe to go to work, back to school or get out and about to support struggling local businesses and our dead city centre,” he told the Herald.

Barnett said with the evidence available from the health experts with most people able to self-manage and self-report an infection “there really was no need to bring the country to a screeching halt.”

Covid-19 response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed today that the country will move to phase 3 of the Omicron response at 11.59pm.

“Phase three won’t mean any sudden lurch in terms of personal movements or restrictions,” Hipkins said.

“It will only be confirmed cases and their household contacts who will be required to isolate.”

RATS will be available at thousands of sites nationwide and should be available to buy at retail outlets from next month.

“And we’ve got millions more of them arriving in the coming days,” Hipkins said.

Hospitality NZ chief executive Julie White said the move to phase 3 was a “pragmatic move for hospitality”.

“A move to phase 3 of the Government’s Omicron response is good news for the hospitality industry, as it will allow staff to keep working, and customers to enjoy getting out.”

White said pressure was on for the shift, as the definition of close contact and a week-long isolation period is keeping mounting numbers of staff and customers unnecessarily at home.

“The rules were having a devastating multiplier effect, turning the thousands of people with Covid-19 into tens of thousands of well or asymptomatic people stuck at home.

“The rules were unsustainable with the rapid spread of Omicron because they are making up to 100 per cent of staff ineligible to work and exacerbating already low numbers of staff.”

The sector had very recently been allowed to work out its own definitions of close contacts on a case by case basis.

White said while a phase shift is welcome, it is only one of the tools for recovery. Another tool is financial support to get through the Omicron wave, and the narrow eligibility of the package announced on Monday still needs to be fixed.

“After our urgent objections, we are now cautiously optimistic that the Government did not intend to restrict the eligibility so tightly and will fix it by the time applications open this Monday,” she said.

The Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said while the move to phase 3is a step in the right direction there’s still work to be done to slow down the rate of business interruption.

“This week alone a large number of our businesses are having to close their doors as a result of staff becoming close contacts of Omicron cases,” Bidois said.

“Whilst the move to phase 3 is certainly helpful we are also aware that our industry employs a large number of younger people, many of whom are living in flatting situations and larger households.

“This means the chances of them becoming household contacts of positive cases is greater. Given this is a workforce that cannot work from home, the ability to be able to test to work has never been more important.

“We would like to see access the critical worker exemption which will allow employees who are testing negative to return to work extended more industries including hospitality.”

Retail NZ manager for public affairs and policy advice Aimie Hines said it welcomed the move to phase 3.

“The greater access to RATS and change in close contact definition will alleviate the levels of absenteeism that retailers are grappling with currently.

“Quicker test times through RATS meaning negative cases can return to work quickly will lessen the current economic impact of isolating staff is having,” Hines said.

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