Cabinet was repeatedly told prior to the August outbreak that the regular asymptomatic testing of all border-facing workers was still being rolled out, despite ministers claiming ignorance, Marc Daalder reports
Just days after the re-emergence of Covid-19 in New Zealand, a scandal erupted over the lack of testing of border-facing staff.
A national testing strategy announced in June was meant to include regular testing of all border-facing workers – that is, people who work at managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, airport staff and marine port workers. But it quickly became apparent that the regular testing had never begun.
Over the almost six weeks between the June 23 announcement and August 3, just 1,089 border-facing workers in Auckland were tested for Covid-19, according to Ministry of Health data released to Newshub. That amounts to less than 36 percent of the border-facing workforce there. Air Commodore Darryn Webb, who is in charge of the MIQ system, revealed on TVNZ1 Breakfast that, in MIQ facilities, just two in five staff had been tested prior to the advent of mandatory testing on August 12.
At the time, Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins insisted they had been told that testing was further along than it in fact was.
“It has not been happening at the rates that, A, we have asked for, and B, we were told was happening,” Hipkins said.
“When we ask as a Cabinet for something to happen, we expect it to happen. So of course that has not met our expectations. No one of course said to any point – that I recall – that what we asked for was not happening,” Ardern said.
But documents proactively released by the Government reveal that isn’t the case. Cabinet was repeatedly told that the border testing was still being rolled out and was never given a date for completion. Cabinet was also provided specific numbers of tests of border-facing workers on a weekly basis.
“One of the challenges in the initial phase was getting comprehensive data,” Hipkins told Newsroom.
“Just getting raw numbers of tests is not enough – you also need a proper risk profile for border workers. Many workers at our airports and ports have no (or very little) exposure to people coming into the country and as such are at low risk. By early August our data on border testing was still a work in progress – but we are now getting comprehensive reporting. In the last week, for example, more than 4,000 tests were process from air crew, port and airport staff, managed isolation and quarantine staff and maritime crew.”
Newsroom understands Cabinet knew the border testing programme was still being rolled out but thought it was further along than it in fact was. This was based on a misunderstanding of the repeated notifications that the full programme was not yet in place.
As late as August 10, the day before the re-emergence of Covid-19 was detected, the weekly situation report delivered to Cabinet noted, in a section titled “Border Measures”: “Officials are initially focusing on implementing rolling surveillance testing of staff in managed isolation facilities and this will be progressively implemented in other high-risk locations.”
Nowhere in the trove of documents released by the Government do health officials say that testing of border-facing staff was fully rolled out. Every update on the testing strategy is caveated with the note that implementation was still occurring.
Under fire and implicitly accused of lying to Cabinet, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said in late August that there had been “dissonance” between the Government and officials. It now appears that “dissonance” was Cabinet ministers interpreting the regular updates as indicating a programme closer to completion than it in fact was.
All the way back in June, when then-Health Minister David Clark announced the testing strategy, this dissonance was already visible.
“There will be an expectation that people working in those [border-facing] roles will be tested regularly, because we want to make sure that our borders are safe. We know that New Zealanders have put an incredible amount of effort in – with the Government moving early, New Zealanders’ sacrifices mean we are where we are. Those borders are the thing that we want to make sure are secure,” Clark said on June 23.
However, he was unable to say what the frequency of testing would be, promising only that it would be “set clinically by experts”.
The eventual national testing strategy, produced by the Ministry of Health, stated: “Screening of all asymptomatic border facing staff would represent a zero-risk approach, however given that risk mitigation measures are in place at the border, the invasive nature of the available test and the fact that the role of asymptomatic infections in the spread of disease cannot be verified this approach is not thought to be viable”.
The Cabinet paper approving the testing strategy also doesn’t mention the frequency of testing of asymptomatic border-facing workers, nor does it specify that all workers would be asymptomatically tested like it does for health checks.
It only promises “regular health checks of all border facing workers (for example, customs, biosecurity and aviation security staff, frontline staff at ports), and managed facilities staff, with testing of those with any symptoms consistent with COVID19. As well, regular asymptomatic surveillance testing of these people will continue. Previously our asymptomatic testing programme identified a border worker who tested positive for COVID-19.”
By July 20, Hipkins was in charge and plans for regular testing of all workers were finally cobbled together. An updated paper delivered to Cabinet promised three new focus areas for the testing strategy, including “Proactive testing of people in high-risk areas, for example asymptomatic air crew, border staff and people working in managed isolation and quarantine facilities”.
“I have instructed officials to develop new daily reporting templates that provide a more granular breakdown of testing so that we can monitor the numbers being tested,” Hipkins wrote. He also noted that he had received feedback “from the Prime Minister at Cabinet on 6 July 2020 on areas of the strategy that needed strengthening”.
Proactive testing rolled out
The paper said that asymptomatic testing of MIQ staff had been rolled out in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, as well as at Auckland Airport. Testing of MIQ staff in Rotorua and Hamilton had been “expanded” – but not to the same degree as in the big cities – and plans for port workers were being drawn up, but had yet to be implemented.
The revised testing strategy, attached to the Cabinet paper, did little to specify what “proactive testing” might look like, promising only that “testing of asymptomatic people who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 infection through their work will be available”.
An attached “Implementation Plan” said a “rolling schedule of asymptomatic testing across all facilities, providing access to testing for staff who work variable days and shifts” had been rolled out to MIQ facilities in the three big cities and Auckland Airport on July 10. Efforts were underway to expand this to Hamilton and Rotorua MIQ staff and to offer maritime border workers “asymptomatic testing across port sites in development and consultation with employers and unions”.
A decision on testing for maritime crew was pending Cabinet sign-off on a health order about whether or not they would be granted shore leave.
However, the frequency of proposed testing for all staff was extremely low. The implementation plan expected just 80 percent of border-facing workers would be tested (it is now mandatory) and that that would be tested just once a month.
Hipkins’ promised reports began to come in weekly, keeping Cabinet updated on the slow rollout of border testing. Even in the final document, provided to Cabinet the day before the second outbreak of Covid-19 was discovered, officials are clear that weekly testing of all staff had yet to be implemented.
“Work is underway to commence weekly testing of asymptomatic workers in quarantine facilities and a rolling schedule of fortnightly testing for workers in managed isolation facilities,” officials wrote.
Testing at Port Taranaki and the Port of Lyttleton had begun that week but testing at the Ports of Auckland was deferred until the next week.
For all workers, it was unclear how many would say yes if offered a test. “Rate of consent to test will vary depending on frequency of testing,” officials noted.
Alongside the comments, Cabinet was provided with a breakdown of the number of workers in each cohort and the number who had been tested. Of the 2,000 MIQ staff, just 290 had been tested in the previous week. Of 5,000 Auckland Airport staff, 211 had received a test. At the ports, where 2,100 people were estimated to be eligible for testing, just 12 had been tested in the past seven days.
Yet, just a week later, Ardern told reporters: “No one of course said to any point – that I recall – that what we asked for was not happening.”