PM keeps RATs on a tight leash
Only critical workers will be able to get RATs and use them from home or at work to break self-isolation; PM concerned RATs not accurate enough and that people who don’t need them will waste them
TLDR: There is no immediate prospect that New Zealanders will be able to buy rapid antigen tests (RATs) off the shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies or get sent them for free so they can test themselves at home and at work.
Unlike in other countries where RATs are commonly used at home, Aotearoa-NZ is choosing to keep tight control of the availability, distribution and use of RATs to avoid false negative and false positive results, and to avoid running out after a slow start to procurement.
PM Jacinda Ardern reiterated today the Government wanted to save limited supplies for critical workers and avoid the 20-70% false test results seen with some RATs. It also wanted to keep them free.
Her comments in the first full post-Cabinet news conference of the year came as she announced there were 4.6m RATs in the country, with confirmed orders of a further 14.6m due in the next five weeks. A further 22m were expected during the next five weeks, but had yet to be confirmed.
Experts have said tens of millions of RATs are likely to be needed at the peak of an omicron outbreak by mid-March that could see up to 50,000 new Covid cases a day, which would overwhelm the established testing and tracing systems. There were 88m RATs on order in total, Ardern said.
She said the Government planned to continue using the existing PCR nasal swab and saliva tests during the first phase of the current omicron outbreak. She’s said PCR capacity has been lifted from previous peaks of 25,000 a day to 60,000 a day, with the ability to ‘surge’ to 78,000 a day for a limited number of days. Lab workers have questioned whether this is sustainable.
Ardern said a limited number of critical workers would be allowed to return to work before the end of self-isolation periods as long as they had negative RAT results and were not symptomatic.
I asked the PM when regular non-critical workers would be able to buy RATs from pharmacies and supermarkets and use them from home, as happens overseas.
“We don't want the fact that you have to pay to be a barrier to people accessing the testing that they need. So free is one of our principles accessible so using local providers is one of our principles. So in some cases, it may be community health providers GPS, and also we're looking at the ongoing role of pharmacies in the delivery of those tests as well.” Jacinda Ardern
I then asked if non-critical workers would ever be allowed to use them themselves at home.
“We want to be careful that individuals who are just wanting to check for no reason that they're not symptomatic, that they’re are a close contact, that they have no reason to think that they’ve got Covid. That's not necessarily a good use of testing resources also because revenue entities can produce false positives and false negatives. We do want to make sure that we use them in the right environments.
“It may well be that people are able to use them at home but we want to make sure that when people are using them it's because there’s a good cause to use them in our context. Someone in the household that's symptomatic with our kind of a surveillance regime because of their essential work, for instance.
“But just people testing in a widespread way for no reason actually is not something that I think we want to encourage, given false positives and false negatives, but that's why we don't want someone staying at home when they don't need to.” Jacinda Ardern.
So far, some large businesses are allowed to import nine types of RATs, with a further 19 tests being assessed by the Ministry.
Meanwhile, Ardern announced tighter mask rules.
Masks must be worn at food and drink venues and when in close proximity at events and gatherings.
Exceptions remain when patrons are eating and drinking and exercising, but they should wear masks when moving to and from tables.
Scarves, bandanas and T-shirts pulled up over faces will no longer be allowed.
Elsewhere, the PM said the issue of whether to open the borders to self-isolating residents arriving from Australia from the end of February as planned would be decided in the next two Cabinet meetings.
“The borders have served us really well. It has enabled us to slow down the entry of all the common into our community versus what the rest of the world has seen.” Ardern
National’s Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said the Government’s approach to RATs was negligent and incompetent.
“It reflects a deep distrust of RATs and an inability to move away from PCR-only testing. That served us well under elimination, but it was stuffed by delta, and omicron will overwhelm our PCR regime within days.” Chris Bishop
ACT leader David Seymour said Ardern was “treating New Zealanders like kids.”
“If you want a Rapid Antigen Test, you have to be a ‘critical worker,’ otherwise you have to stay in isolation for 14 days. All over the world, people can go to their supermarket or pharmacy and buy a test to monitor their own health. Here in New Zealand, we have enough on shore for one each, so the Government is tightly rationing them.
“The Government is not ready and has not ordered the tests on time, but it has also banned anyone else from importing them. Now the Government has imposed draconian controls on who can access Rapid Antigen Tests.
“You can’t get out of isolation until you have waited 14 days or had a negative test. But there are not enough tests so only ‘critical workers’ can get out of isolation with a negative antigen test. The obvious result is that people will not get tested at all, knowing that a positive test effectively imprisons them.” David Seymour.