First the good news:
Rapid antigen testing will be available more widely in New Zealand, and will be used as part of the Government’s Omicron response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Thursday.
Ardern said there are currently 4.6 million rapid antigen tests (RATs) in New Zealand, and there were “10s of millions on order”. . .
But the bad news is that on order could be too late.
National leader Christopher Luxon said the revelation that there were 4.6 million rapid tests in the country equalled “less than one per person”, and deemed the rollout “appallingly slow”.
“New Zealand has been slow on boosters and slow on vaccines for 5–11-year-olds and now we’re being appallingly slow on rapid tests,” he said.
“To make matters worse, the Prime Minister still can’t outline how they will be used, when they will be available, and what isolation rules will be in place. She even thinks our current contact tracing system will work against Omicron.” . .
She also thinks tests 48 hours before people board flights to New Zealand is good enough, a point Sir Ian Taylor disputes:
. . . Let’s start with the “unprecedented number of Omicron cases” that have caused the latest “change in plans”.
All of those cases have had to come across our border. To get here, just like Delta before it, Omicron had to hitch a ride with a traveller on a plane or a boat.
One of the reasons it has managed to make that journey to the extent it has, is because we had a testing regime that only required a traveller to test negative 72 hours before boarding a flight. That has subsequently been reduced to 48 hours, but that is still two days to catch the most infectious variant of Covid we have seen to date.
In the “151 Off the Bench” self-isolation programme that I undertook last year with the support of the Business Cross-Sector Border Group, we trialled an alternative to MIQ, which we called Self-Managed Isolation. Focused initially on business travel, this was a system that we believed could be expanded quickly to start bringing our fellow stranded Kiwis home as well; a system that could remain in place no matter what Covid threw at us.
For the 151 Trial, I took my PCR test at LA Airport, before boarding, where I could choose to get my result one hour, three hours or five hours after taking the test. I chose five hours.
Which raises the question: how many of the 300, highly infectious, Omicron cases currently in MIQ would have been picked up in a five-hour window, rather than the current 48 hours?
Perhaps that’s a model Professor Shaun Hendy and his team might test for us.
How different might our situation be now if the Ministry of Health had taken up an offer made in July last year to trial an FDA-approved, PCR equivalent test that has subsequently been approved for official use by countries such as Canada, Israel, Taiwan, the US and Singapore?
The test in question delivers a result in 30 minutes. It costs less than the current approved nasopharyngeal PCR test and independent testing has found that it has “the same diagnostic accuracy as a PCR test,” making it perfect for pre-flight testing, which is what Air Canada uses it for. How many Covid cases might have been detected had we implemented a system that delivered results a matter of hours before boarding, instead of days?
We can’t change the decision made a year and a half ago by the MOH to decline the offer to trial this test, but we can learn from it. Over the Christmas break, the company that made the original offer has confirmed that it still stands. The owner of the company has been coming to New Zealand for 20 years and his connection to this part of the world has meant that New Zealand remains a priority and he is prepared to do whatever is needed to accelerate the trial that he originally offered. . .
Why wasn’t the trial done last year and why hasn’t the offer to accelerate the trial now been taken up?
There’s been weeks to watch and learn from overseas experience which has pointed very clearly to the need for rapid testing once Omicron takes off and the need to ensure there was no shortage of stock.
But once again the government hasn’t learned and is doing too little, too late.