Australians have bought their pharamcies out of Rapid Antigen Tests but New Zealanders will not have such easy access.

The Government is planning for  Omicron to peak in either late March or April, and to cope with what is expected to be a high caseload, it is proposing to make some relaxations to self-isolation and testing requirements for confirmed cases.

It is proposing that Rapid Antigen Testing be used much more extensively but unlike Australia it is not willing to allow widespread public purchase of RAT testing kits.

Self-isolation for confirmed cases will be reduced from 14 to 10 days, and contacts will need to isolate for only seven days instead of 10.

They will be able to “self-release” after their stint in self-isolation provided they have gone 72 hours without showing any Omnicron symptoms.

If they have no further symptoms, they will not need a test.

The proposals were outlined to Ministry of Health staff and DHBs last night, and a media conference will be briefed today by Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall.

POLITIK has obtained a copy of the briefing notes used last night.

They outline three phases; “Stamp it Out”, “Flatten the Curve”, and “Manage It”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday confirmed that we were currently in the “Stamp It Out” phase.

“At this stage, we’re doing what we’ve successfully done with Delta, taking that “stamp-it-out” approach,” she said.

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The briefing notes show that this phase is being sued to prepare for the next two phases when case numbers are expected to explode.

Health Minister Andrew Little yesterday told NewstalkZB that case numbers could be 5000-50,000 a day, which he described as a worst-case scenario the health system had to be prepared for.

That preparation will include “Transition to cases using self-service and automation; Other people with lower clinical risks, but with welfare needs may instead present directly to MSD or external providers.”

Clinical care will be delivered by primary care teams with support for positive cases to isolate in their homes.

“Alternative accommodation options across the regions are identified and being utilised, with some areas becoming stressed.”

But there will be a big change in testing as nasal, and saliva PCR testing is reserved for symptomatic people and their contacts.

Others will be tested by Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs). RATs can return a result in 15 minutes, and while they have a lower accuracy than PCR tests, experts hope they can be used to reduce the pressure on PCR testing clinics. 

It is estimated there are 500,000 essential workers, and they will be surveillance tested by RATs.

That testing frequency could be as often as two or three times a week which means the Government’s current stock of RATs could easily run out.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said there are 4.6 million tests already in the country, with a confirmed delivery of an additional 14.6m over the next five weeks.

But in what appears to be a move to conserve RAT supplies, the Opposition is accusing the Government of clamping down on RATs being used by unapproved non-governmental providers.

National MP Chris Bishop last night said he had been approached by a series of organisations, “all of whom have orders for rapid antigen tests about to be filled.

“They have been told that those orders cannot be filled because the rapid antigen tests are now going to the Government instead,” he said.

The Prime Minister yesterday defended her Government’s decision to strictly control who may sell RATs.

We want to make sure that they are free,” she said.

“We don’t want the fact that you have to pay to be a barrier to people accessing the testing that they need.”

And in another indication that the supply is tight, she said she wanted the tests used only where they were definitely needed.

“We want to be careful that individuals who are just wanting to check for no reason, they’re not symptomatic, they’re not a contact. They have no reason to think they’ve got Covid. That’s not necessarily a good use of testing resources and also because rapid antigen tests can produce false positives and false negatives. We do want to make sure that we use them in the right environments.”

Ardern said she was sympathetic to the needs of business that wants the RATs for surveillance testing of their staff.

“While I know supply is tight, businesses are able to access RATS directly from approved manufacturers,” she said.

But RATs will become even more important when the country moves to the “Manage It” phase.

The Ministry’s briefing notes show that at that point, almost all testing will be done by RATs, including the vital diagnostic tests.

“Shift from testing of most people who are symptomatic from PCR to RATs as a diagnostic test,” the notes say.

In both Phases Two and Three, cases will be largely left to manage themselves at home with “high touch clinical care” and “wraparound government support services” reserved for those with “high needs”.

The notes say it is unlikely there will be alternative accommodation capacity available for cases that are unable to safely isolate at home.

Despite the fact that the Government is planning for the vast bulk of what it expects will be a very large number of Omicron cases to isolate at home, the Prime Minister was equivocal when questioned yesterday about whether she was prepared to relax the current border restrictions and allow arrivals to self isolate rather than in Managed Isolation and Quarantine.

“We had anticipated and still anticipate changing our border requirements to allow self-isolation for returnees,” she said.

“But you will have already heard we set out that plan at the end of last year. No changes have been made to that.

“So that is what was set out then is a staged approach to allowing individuals to isolate at home once they’ve entered into the country.

“We still will have a self-isolation requirement, though, because while we’re dealing with Omicron and while there is still the potential of other variants in the world, we want to make sure that we reduce the number of new cases that are being seeded because it’s our view that what’s seen a large and significant scale of outbreaks overseas.”

Nevertheless, what today’s announcement will confirm is that the Government is now preparing to treat Covid as just another disease, albeit a widespread one, but what was missing from yesterday’s comments were the earnings that it could be fatal.