The Government is standing by its stance that businesses opting for surveillance testing must cover the huge expense themselves

Businesses are coughing up thousands of dollars each week for Covid-19 testing, with one company’s weekly rapid antigen testing bill hitting $15,000, while another is earmarking about $700,000 in the budget for the next six months.

Sealord is checking staff with PCR tests using saliva samples and throat swabs after purchasing its own equipment at the end of last year.

The company recently canned a policy requiring 85 percent of staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Chief executive Doug Paulin says the cost of each test is relatively cheap, but this quickly adds up when hundreds of tests are done daily.

The company is testing anyone coming on to its Nelson premises, meaning it has been testing an average of 600 staff and contractors each day. 

Paulin says the company spent an initial $200,000 on multiple PCR testing machines, employing dedicated testing staff, and other goods needed for daily testing. He is anticipating it’ll cost the company between about $700,000 to keep this up for the next six months.

“In the long run, it won’t be cheap, but it’s far cheaper than having to stop your business,” he says.

He’s not sure how long the business will carry on with this pricey regime, likening it to the length of a piece of string.

“In the long run, it won’t be cheap, but it’s far cheaper than having to stop your business.” 
Doug Paulin, Sealord chief executive

“Some of it will come down to what the rules are around exporting to other countries,” he says.

China, for instance, may continue to require that chilled food suppliers recall products and suspend exports if a staff member tests positive for Covid-19. 

“We’ll just have to wait and see and assess the information as it comes in.”

$15,000 weekly bill a ‘necessary cost’

Global freight and logistics company Mainfreight has been spending an average of $15,000 each week on rapid antigen testing since the start of the year.

Chief executive Don Braid says the company does once or twice weekly surveillance testing of staff, ramping this up to daily if there’s been a confirmed case on a particular site.

The company bought a stockpile of rapid antigen tests for the 3500 staff based in New Zealand. So far, about 750 workers have tested positive, with rapid antigen testing picking up just over 720 of these cases.

Braid has a pragmatic approach when it comes to coughing up money for testing.

“It’s a necessary cost in today’s environment.”

Mainfreight chief executive Don Braid sees rapid antigen testing as a necessary cost. Photo: Supplied

“We feel it’s prudent that we test on a regular basis to provide comfort for staff that they’re negative, and that the people working beside them are negative.”

A Port of Tauranga spokeswoman Rochelle Lockley says the port has spent more than $200,000 on rapid antigen tests for its employees.

“But by far, the greatest demand is among our operations contractors, who would have spent considerably more in total.”

The Port has sourced RATs from three different suppliers, in addition to testing kits dished out from the Government and the Bay of Plenty District Health Board for critical workers, and ongoing surveillance testing that’s part of the Government’s maritime border rules.

Emma Wooster, corporate affairs manager at Foodstuffs, says about 1600 staff at the supermarket co-operative are being tested everyday using surveillance rapid antigen tests.

She didn’t disclose how much the company was spending on tests, but says it accepts “RAT tests as an everyday additional cost that we absorb into our cost of doing business.”

No helping hand from Government

The Government is standing by its stance that businesses that want to do surveillance testing to manage the risk of a positive case putting a spanner in the workplace need to cover that cost.

Rebecca Heerdegen, policy director for Covid business and services advice at the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, says testing is, generally speaking, only required when someone’s symptomatic, or a household contact. 

“Tests for those people are free, as part of the public health response,” she says. “If businesses opt to test, such as for surveillance purposes to manage their operational risk, that is a business decision, and therefore a business cost, rather than a cost to taxpayers.”

Heerdegen says businesses have raised the question of who pays for what.

“MBIE has provided advice as outlined, that testing required for public health purposes is free, and where businesses choose to test for their own requirements, they should meet the cost of that testing.”

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