WELLINGTON, Jan. 20 (Xinhua) -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that the country will move into the highest level of COVID-19 restrictions instead of lockdowns once the Omicron variant enters the community.
"We won't be able to stop Omicron entering the community, but we can use tools to try and slow it down," Ardern told a press conference.
She said that once the government has evidence of Omicron transmitting in the community, it won't use lockdowns, and instead, the whole country will move into Red -- the highest level of New Zealand's "traffic light" COVID protection system of Red, Orange and Green -- within 24 to 48 hours.
It can take as little as 14 days for Omicron cases to grow from the hundreds into the thousands, Ardern said, adding the red setting allows businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but includes mask-wearing and gathering restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus and keep pressure off the health system.
"The single most important thing New Zealanders can do to prepare for Omicron is to get their booster dose before it takes off in the community," she said, adding booster doses provide good protection against Omicron and reduce the spread and severity of Omicron when it arrives.
Meanwhile, New Zealand's Northland will move from Red to Orange at 11:59 pm on Thursday, while the rest of the country will remain at Orange.
"Vaccination rates have continued to increase in Northland and are now at 89 percent first dose. The easing of the Auckland boundary over summer did not drive an increase in cases so we believe it is safe for Northland to join the rest of the country at Orange," Ardern said.
She said by staying at Orange, New Zealand will be able to hold onto these gains such as in reducing Delta case numbers especially in light of the Auckland boundary lifting last month and holiday travel, while continuing to make preparations for Omicron.
New Zealand reported 39 new cases of COVID-19 in the community on Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country's current community outbreak to 11,399.
Among the new infections, 21 were recorded in the largest city of Auckland, 14 in the Lakes region, two in Hawke's Bay, one in Canterbury and one in West Coast, according to the country's Ministry of Health.