Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: PM Jacinda Ardern promises schools will only close again as a 'last resort', warns of a grim winter ahead

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Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: PM Jacinda Ardern promises schools will only close again as a 'last resort', warns of a grim winter ahead

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has used her opening statement to Parliament to promise schools and early childhood centres will now only be closed as a “last resort” during Covid outbreaks.

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But she also warned that new and different variants of Covid-19 were almost certain to hit this year, and the opening of the borders was likely to see influenza re-emerge, and it was time to “prepare for winter”.

Her opening statement marks the start of Parliament for the year as politicians returned under red light restrictions – meaning masks around Parliament and only half the full contingent of MPs in the debating chamber at any time.

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Ardern will speak about her agenda as the Freedom Convoy protesters gather outside, protesting against restrictions of the Covid-19 response.

In it, she focused mainly on the Covid 19 response as the Government negotiates the Omicron outbreak and prepares for future variants.

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She said the Government was committed to keeping schools open after a disrupted two years for students and teachers during lockdowns.

“The latest evidence shows that school closures are finely balanced. They can cause significant indirect harm to children, including widening educational inequities, poorer mental health, behavioural difficulties, social isolation, family stress, family violence and food insecurity.”

She said they also had a disproportionate impact on Māori and Pacific children, as well as those from poorer households.

“We are committed to keeping schools and early learning services open, with closures only as a last resort due to a significant outbreak in a school or service, staff absences that make it unsafe to operate, or a local lockdown.”

The Prime Minister’s annual Statement to Parliament sets out the agenda for the year ahead. Ardern will speak to it after it is tabled in Parliament at 2pm, followed by the responses from National Party leader Christopher Luxon and other party leaders.

Ardern started with the Omicron outbreak and what lay ahead after Omicron.

She said the experts had warned that new variants were almost certain to emerge this year and the focus for the Government was on improving the health system to deal with them.

“Taking pressure off our health system during winter is a key priority of this Government. As New Zealand reconnects with the world, seasonal influenza will likely re-emerge this year.”

That mean a focus on the influenza vaccination rollout would also be critical to help reduce the risk of “unnecessary pressures” on the health system: a double-header flu and Covid outbreak.

However, Ardern said the Government’s response had so far served the country well.

While no country was immune from the disruption Omicron was causing, “we are working hard to avoid the worst of it”.

She said that in a pandemic that moved swiftly, “no country has perfected the playbook”.

However, she said New Zealand was in a better position now than most the countries it compared itself to.

Ardern said boosters as well as new treatments for Covid-19 should reduce the number of cases which required ICU level care in the Omicron outbreak.

She credited the Government’s Covid-19 response, especially the vaccination rollout and traffic light system, with protecting New Zealanders from the “Delta destruction” other countries had faced.

She said Government support – including spending $8.8 billion on the health response and $23b on business support such as the wage subsidy scheme – had also helped hold up the economy.

Ardern also confirmed the Government will forge ahead with the controversial Three Waters plan this year, after it was delayed last year for more consultation with councils. The plan to vest councils’ water assets and infrastructure into the control of four regional entities is strongly opposed by many councils, including Auckland Council.

“It is clear that without our plan to establish four publicly owned water service entities we will continue to see a frail network and contaminated water in many communities. To delay will only push the problem on, and increase future household costs.”

The Government also intended to stick to its guns on immigration reforms which were aimed at reducing the number of low-skilled migrants, and to introduce Fair Pay Agreements.

Ardern’s speech also looked at other priorities on the Government, including the health reforms. The reforms will abolish the district health boards and set up a Health NZ agency and Māori Health Authority alongside it. Ardern said the pandemic had shown the weaknesses of the current system.

Other areas of focus included climate change and environmental measures, child poverty, housing supply, and the infrastructure projects the Government has announced, including in transport and schools.

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