New Zealand / Covid 19

Covid-19: Border workers to get saliva testing, 16 fined for refusing tests

16:31 pm on 14 July 2021

Saliva testing is being rolled out to all frontline border workers, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has announced.

Hipkins and Joint Head of Managed Isolation Megan Main have held a Covid-19 briefing at the Beehive this afternoon.

Watch the briefing here:

The saliva testing comes as the ministry issues 16 infringement notices to border workers who have not complied with testing requirements, Hipkins said.

"Prior to the infringement notices being sent, many were being made to contact these workers to provide them with support and assistance to comply with the required testing order, including being provided with testing opportunities, providing reminders and giving them a formal warning."

He said the notices will be sent by mail or email and those 16 people are being fined.

Hipkins said the saliva testing would start in mid-August for those who were already on a seven-day testing cycle, then roll out to the remaining 13,000 active border workers.

He said the saliva testing would be an optional full replacement for the nasal swab testing for those staff, and could be done at their workplace.

A prototype was already under way in Canterbury.

"This will help boost uptake of saliva testing as a testing option for those who have to do it regularly," Hipkins said.

"By offering this an alternative, we're helping border workers who have frequent testing and find having a swab inserted in the nose very uncomfortable and hard to tolerate."

Saliva test uptake too slow, says Opposition

In a statement, National's spokesperson on Covid-19 response Chris Bishop said the announcement was "remarkably similar" to one made on 26 May.

"In May Minister Hipkins said saliva testing would commence 'as part of a phased roll out beginning in June' ... today the minister announced that saliva testing will actually start from mid-August and will be expanded over several months," Bishop said.

He said saliva testing had an important role to play in keeping the border secure, but it was staggering the government "still hasn't sorted out this mess" and it was not good enough to blame officials.

ACT deputy leader and health spokesperson Brooke van Velden said it had taken six months to adopt the technology based on evidence that was available in February.

"In the meantime, pilots and border workers have had to endure swabs repeatedly shoved up their noses when there was an alternative all along," she said.

"Hipkins today said 'saliva testing is an increasingly viable and reliable method for public health surveillance purposes' ... he needs to explain what's changed since February and why it's taken so long."

'Not just a complement ... an alternative'

Hipkins said most workers would not need to be tested outside normal shift patterns, and the Ministry of Health had provided assurances that the saliva testing provider could handle demand.

He said saliva testing will be "not just a complement ... but actually an alternative" to nasal cotton bud swabs and he was sure the option will be welcomed by those frontline workers.

"Public health science and clinical advisors will continue to monitor and regularly review our approach as we undertake a phased rollout of saliva testing ... it will be a useful new addition to the toolkit."

He said the advice from the ministry had previously recommended that saliva testing could be a complement to a fortnightly nasal swab as well.

"Now that it is an alternative, the feedback we've had from those workers is that there'll be more enthusiasm for it and we're also expecting that the rollout to a much larger number of sites will happen quite quickly."

He said the approach was changed from complementary to alternative on the advice of the technical advisory group.

This is for surveillance testing at the border, but the advice is it's best to keep using nasopharyngeal swabs for diagnostic testing.

"The Ministry of Health themselves acknowledge that we're going to need to move a bit faster as new testing technologies become more readily available and become more reliable."

He said the government wants to be in a position to be able to quickly assess new testing methods for reliability.

"The technology around rapid testing is certainly evolving quite quickly."

Photo: 123rf

Main said that if someone arrived in New Zealand who did not meet the quarantine-free travel requirements, they must go into managed isolation for 14 days.

"The only exceptions to that are where a medical officer of health makes a determination," she said.

She said there were a total of 60 people in MIQ at the moment who have breached one of the requirements.

On computer programmes being used to book spots in MIQ, Main said the system required someone to physically be making the booking. Auto-filling programmes can speed the process up but where they have found people breaching the use agreements, those people are being blocked.

She said there were thousands of people making the bookings, and demand was exceeding supply.

The ministry is also looking at providing alerts for different classes of people.

She said one of the challenges with using a waitlist system is it pushes the problem further up the pipeline.

"What we don't want is a lot of people who don't need vouchers anymore because their plans have changed sitting on a wait list."

She said the NSW managed return process is not a usual green-flight or red-flight process, and the ministry needed to design a new process matching commercial flight times and locations.

"This is sustainable as a short burst but not as a long-term solution."