The Ministry of Health incorrectly claimed it had set up a new innovation team to deal with shortcomings raised before the Covid-19 testing system buckled during the Omicron outbreak.

In March, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield admitted the ministry had overestimated the number of Covid-19 PCR tests the country’s laboratories could process as the virus took off in the community.

The revelation came as Kiwis waited upwards of a week for test results and health experts warned of laboratories reaching a crisis point, while months earlier one of the Government’s own groups had raised red flags.

A rapid review from the Covid-19 testing technical advisory group, released last October, raised a number of concerns about the ministry’s approach to testing including “a relative slowness to introduce saliva testing and to prepare for rapid antigen testing”.

“With anticipated progression from the elimination phase and the implementation of a reconnection plan, there is a pressing need to ensure that Covid-19 testing is adaptable and fit for purpose.”

The group had recommended the development of “a clearly-articulated future-focused Covid-19 testing strategy that is based on scenarios for the purposes of laboratory planning”, as well as stronger testing leadership within the ministry “to help break down the silos that have developed within the testing space, and strengthen external engagement”.

Responding in March to a question from Newsroom about its response to the recommendations, Bloomfield told Newsroom: “To improve our horizon scanning and considering new tests, we have established an innovation team and in partnership with [the] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade we are reviewing other countries’ experiences with use of testing technologies.”

However, in a reply that same month to a written parliamentary question from the National Party’s Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop, the Government revealed the team had in fact never been set up.

“I am advised that while the Ministry of Health’s intention had been to formally establish an innovation team by this time, this establishment work has been deferred to enable the Ministry’s COVID-19 Testing Operations team to focus on its Omicron outbreak response work, including scaling up testing and ensuring nationwide rapid antigen test distribution and supply lines,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in March.

“In the interim, testing innovation work continues to be undertaken by National Laboratory Testing staff within the Ministry’s COVID-19 Testing and Supply Group with support from the Ministry’s COVID-19 Science and Insights team.”

‘Pretty Mickey Mouse’

Bishop told Newsroom the ministry needed to explain why it had claimed the team had been set up when that was not the case.

“It’s pretty Mickey Mouse when the Ministry of Health tells journalists something’s happened, and when they get questioned by a member of Parliament we find out it hasn’t actually happened…it’s clearly not an optimal outcome.”

The fact that the team had still not been created was emblematic of the bad experiences New Zealanders had had with testing over the last year, he said.

A Ministry of Health spokeswoman told Newsroom the innovation team had still not been created, but the deferral had not stopped it from monitoring overseas developments in testing technologies and learning from other countries, which it did through other staff.

“The more testing technologies and innovations we have the better to fight against Covid-19 but we have to make sure they are safe and effective as part of the overall testing regime in a New Zealand setting,” the spokeswoman said.

There were currently 17 different types of rapid antigen test kits approved for use in New Zealand, with all applications required to go through a thorough evaluation process. The ministry was also overseeing the trial of a new Covid-19 testing solution based on loop-mediated isothermal amplification technology, the spokeswoman said.

The ministry did not clarify why Bloomfield said in March the team had been set up when that was not the case.

Newsroom also approached Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

* This article has been updated with a response from the Ministry of Health which arrived after the initial deadline

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment