The Ministry of Health now says its Covid-19 prevalence survey, planned to be in place after the March peak, won’t start until the last months of the year, Marc Daalder reports

The long-awaited survey to detect the true spread of Covid-19 in New Zealand will have to be awaited a little longer.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told Newsroom the project now won’t start until the fourth quarter of this year, meaning November at the absolute earliest.

The idea dates back to when Ashley Bloomfield was still the Director-General of Health. In March, he said the ministry would seek to launch a random testing scheme which could more accurately determine the level of community transmission, now that many people don’t report RAT results and many asymptomatic cases go undetected.

Originally scheduled for some time after the March Omicron peak, Bloomfield said in June that it would start in mid-July. In July, the ministry told Newsroom the survey would be in the field “in the coming weeks”. Now, that has been pushed back to “the final quarter of 2022”.

“The timing will depend on how quickly consultation can be completed, the necessary digital tools can be built, funding arrangements can be finalised, and ethics approval can be granted,” a ministry spokesperson said.

When questioned about the repeated delays, the spokesperson said “establishing surveys is complex”.

“The time required has been significantly affected by Covid-19 and other winter illnesses, and the significant changes following the health system reforms. These changes are constructive but have involved additional lead-in times for collaboration and consultation,” they said.

The survey will run six months and have three key focuses – tests to determine the current level of active infection in the community, blood tests to discover the levels of immunity from past infection and vaccination and a component about priority populations like Māori and Pasifika. The spokesperson said the addition of the latter two elements also led to delays.

The gold standard prevalence survey is run by the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom. That project showed the country was finding fewer than half of its cases during the Omicron wave in January. It also releases results on a weekly basis and has been doing so since May 2020.

New Zealand’s version may not release data so regularly.

“Decisions on the frequency and format of reporting data have not been finalised. Significant changes have recently been made to the way Covid-19 data is reported by the ministry. The release of survey data will be aligned with these ministry processes,” the spokesperson said.

“With reference to the ONS survey, there are some similarities as well as differences. Among these are the focus on Māori and Pacific people, and a different environment for inviting people to participate and ways to collect specimens from them.”

Experts have previously said surveys are needed now that fewer people are testing for the virus. Dion O’Neale, of Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa, said in March that decision-makers were “flying blind” without one.

“It’s disappointing to hear that the prevalence survey won’t be running sooner. We should have had one running from the early days of the pandemic. While it’s not trivial to set one up, it’s also not something that should take over two years,” he told Newsroom on Thursday.

“At this rate the [survey] will only be starting after other Covid response measures have already ended. This diminishes its value in providing information for planning and preparation for those measures. It will still give valuable information but not having it running to help inform modelling and health responses during the brunt of the pandemic has been a missed opportunity.”

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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