New Zealand should fall in line with international best practice and begin testing large numbers of people for Covid-19, the Prime Minister said this morning

The Government has heeded the World Health Organisation’s advice to “test, test, test”, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday morning.

Ardern insisted doctors have always had the ability to order tests for patients but encouraged them to do so more liberally now.

“Ultimately, I’m not the doctor in the room making those decisions, but the message I will send to clinicians is we have the capacity. We have the ability to test far more than we are now and my message to them is if in your judgment you need to, then do,” she said.

“If you think you need to test, test.”

Testing capacity will continue to be increased – it will reach 1,500 people a day later this week, up from 750 last week – and that capacity will begin to be put to use. Until now, New Zealand had only tested 522 people since it became aware of the virus’ existence in January.

This chart from Our World in Data shows New Zealand lagging behind in Covid-19 tests per capita.

Overseas experience shows a robust testing regime, such as that implemented by South Korea, can help blunt the spread of the disease. More than 240,000 people have been tested in the country of 51 million. Experts say this has helped lower the mortality rate and stop community transmission.

New Zealand’s criteria are stricter than other countries’ – officials generally require a person to not only have symptoms (a fever or cough) but also to have been overseas recently or been in contacted with a confirmed case in order to get a Covid-19 test. However, the Government told doctors on March 8 there was flexibility in these criteria and they should order tests using their best judgment.

Evidently, that message didn’t filter through into action, with fewer tests being conducted in the entire period since January than the country could run in a single day. Ardern said she didn’t “think that’s a fair way to actually reflect what’s been happening in New Zealand testing. Our capacity is significant.”

“You will continue to see [daily test numbers] ramping up and my expectation is that will only grow. The capacity is there, I anticipate it will begin to be filled.”

Health Minister David Clark also emphasised there were no capacity constraints and urged doctors to use their discretion. “There is a case definition but if a patient doesn’t fit that case definition and they suspect, because of clinical signs, that there may be anything to do with Covid, we’re encouraging them to test and we know that they are because we’re seeing increasing numbers” of tests, he said.

National Party leader Simon Bridges criticised the Government for a lack of testing even after Ardern’s announcement. “It’s made quite clear, we need to test, test, test, and they don’t think a number of countries are doing anywhere near enough about this – and I think that’s so in New Zealand,” Bridges said.

Bridges raised the spectre of community transmission that hasn’t yet been detected due to the lower testing numbers. “That’s why frankly we have only eight confirmed cases, when I think everything we are seeing around the world is telling us it would be more than that.”

Speaking before the Prime Minister’s announcement, University of Auckland Professor Shaun Hendy told Newsroom that encouraging more testing was a difficult decision to make, as it could put pressure on a limited supply of materials needed to make the tests.

While international best practice makes clear robust testing can help flatten the curve, “I think we need to be clear that we’re in this for the long haul,” he said.

“The testing is going to put enormous stress on staff and also these tests, there’s reagents that you need, that are involved, and there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty as to the production of those.”

“Most of these things are not made in New Zealand. We have to think really hard whether we have the capacity in New Zealand to start manufacturing these things. I think it’s a tough decision on keeping your powder dry now, at the early stage, when we realise the most likely scenario is a pretty long battle.”

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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