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Return to New Zealand campuses marred by Omicron

Vaccine mandates set to be in force at all universities within weeks

The beginning of New Zealand’s academic year has been hit by the onset of the highest national setting of Covid-19 restrictions.

Although the ‘red’ setting in the traffic lights system does not necessitate a lockdown, it means that on-campus activities will be severely restricted, with masks, social distancing (including in classes and lectures) and vaccines required. Staff are generally being encouraged to work from home where possible.

On 26 January, there were reported to have been 59 new cases in New Zealand in the past 24 hours.

University approaches

Most universities are mandating full vaccination to attend campus. The requirement is already in place at the Universities of Auckland and Otago, and it begins on 31 January at Victoria University of Wellington. Staff, students and visitors will have to either show their certificates or pre-register their status.

The University of Otago said the vaccine mandate had “not been made lightly” but that there was a need to operate safely and protect staff. Some of its classes have been moved due to the new restrictions.

Lincoln University is allowing fully vaccinated people on campus. Its researchers have been told to review their activities to assess the Covid-19 risk.

At Massey University, the in-house tracing app is being used alongside a vaccine mandate, and researchers have been told that all research activities involving personal contact must meet both Massey’s rules and those of any other organisations involved.

Vaccine requirements at the University of Waikato do not begin until 14 February. “Students who choose not to be vaccinated or do not wish to share their vaccination status will be able to study online where appropriate,” its website says, and the university is continuing to discuss options with unvaccinated staff and those who have not provided proof.

At the University of Canterbury, the mandate applies to students by their course start date, and it already applies to staff.

An Auckland University of Technology statement on its website says that “almost all our staff will be fully vaccinated by 2022” and new hires will be dependent on vaccination status.

Sensible setting

The national move to the red setting is “sensible” and will help slow transmission, according to University of Otago immunologist James Ussher.

University of Auckland scientist Siouxsie Wiles said that indoor settings were a particular risk. Masks and social distancing should continue to be used, she said.