Covid-19

Border Covid tests should have come earlier

The Government is scrambling to ramp up the testing of border workers and the Health Minister has conceded he would have liked to have seen more of it earlier

Health Minister Chris Hipkins is about to sign an order making it compulsory to test staff working at the border and in managed isolation facilities for Covid-19.

Compulsory testing was a "big lever to pull", but he also admitted he'd have preferred it had been done earlier. 

"Look I would have liked to have seen more tests earlier. Yes it would be fair to say that."

The announcement of the order for compulsory tests prompted a barrage of pointed questions at Friday afternoon's Covid-19 press conference on why those measures hadn't been in place earlier.

"Look, compulsory testing is quite a big lever to pull," he replied.

"The Government exercises a great deal of caution when making it compulsory for somebody to undergo a medical procedure."

There has been a flurry of testing over the past two days as authorities have scrambled to plug any gaps in the country's biosecurity border defences that might have led to our first confirmed case of community transmission in 102 days.

Officials and experts have identified inadequate testing of border workers, the transfer of people staffing managed isolation facilities and freight movements into a cold store in Auckland - as potential ways the virus might have made its way into the community.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said a programme to test staff at managed isolation facilities had been about to get underway when the most recent outbreak occurred.

"The issue has been raised about voluntary or compulsory testing.

"The reason we are now issuing - well the Minister's actually issuing - an order is because we are in an outbreak situation and therefore it's more appropriate to. And it backs up what was previously voluntary testing."

Over the past 48 hours, 1435 staff in managed isolation facilities have been tested for Covid-19 (58 percent), but 1024 (42 percent) have yet to be tested. 

Most of the 280 staff working in frontline roles at the border were also tested in the past 24 hours. 

Hipkins defended the amount of testing that had been done. 

While four in 10 staff at managed isolation facilities hadn't been tested during this most recent batch of testing he believed a "good proportion" would have been in the past. 

He also believed other border staff were simply not at risk.

"There's obviously several thousand people that work across the border, you know, throughout the country. 

"Not all of them are in a high-risk category. Some of them won't come into contact with any risk at all.”

'We are being absolutely scrupulous'

Ports have been identified as another area where the virus could have slipped through, but Hipkins brushed off suggestions a lack of testing there might have been a "blind spot" within the Government's testing regime. 

"We are being absolutely scrupulous and checking all of the areas where it could have come in.

"So we are being very vigilant at the ports and at the border where it could have come in."

Testing of port workers will be made mandatory too. Five hundred workers at the Ports of Auckland were tested for Covid-19 on Thursday.

Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health had been rolling out a programme of testing at 17 ports around the country even before the outbreak. 

"Auckland was one of those [ports being tested]. And the testing over the next few days is because Auckland is clearly where this outbreak is so we want to test border staff at both the maritime and air border."

The increased testing was not just part of a general effort to increase testing at the border, but also to rule out a theory that the virus might have survived on imported goods that were shipped to a cool store in Mt Wellington.

Hipkins said there were a number of issues with testing at ports and some workers were at more risk of getting exposed to Covid-19 than others.

There was also a certain level of risk from crews on visiting ships who never entered New Zealand, but were involved in loading and unloading goods at the country's ports. 

"We've been working through all of those things, very carefully, and testing is part of the answer in the end, but it's not the only thing."

"The best thing that we can do, of course, is to stop any transmission - the risk of any transmission - of the virus in the first place. Which is what we've been very much focused on at the Ports."

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