COVID-19: Firms 'getting whacked' by weekly testing requirements to cross Auckland border - business owner

By RNZ's Checkpoint

The head of a small business in Auckland says new weekly COVID-19 test requirements for essential workers crossing the alert-level border mean firms like hers are "getting whacked".

Organic fertiliser company boss Daniella Watene told Checkpoint such compliance costs were destroying small businesses.

She runs Ardmore-based Bennett Fertilisers with her husband and employs 18 people, including 10 truck drivers.

Watene said she supported the idea of testing, but the new mandatory testing regime was sprung on them with little warning and no consultation or planning. 

Truck drivers and other essential workers crossing from alert level 4 Auckland to regions in level 2 must now carry proof of their weekly COVID-19 test for police checkpoints. 

"The main issue for me and for my staff is when and where and how do truck drivers get these tests done on a weekly basis? 

"I spent a lot of time yesterday trying to contact people who do the testing to find out what times they're open and how I can do this. And it would appear most testing stations are open from 8am to 4pm," Watene said.

Few testing centres open at appropriate times

Watene said that's very difficult for truck drivers who generally work from 6am to 6pm. 

"Truck drivers generally work long hours, and to get tested during the day is a major, major inconvenience.   

"I completely agree with the idea of testing over the border and we need to do our bit. 

"But we need a bit of clarity over this, as to how it's all going to unfold.

"And are they going to have testing stations at the border, or somewhere where truck drivers can drive through? Because no testing station we've seen today can have a truck go through them."

Some of the staff live outside Auckland and come in to pick up deliveries, Watene said. As there were no COVID-19 community cases outside the city, there were no pop-up testing stations. 

She said it was a major challenge getting a test as most clinics do not test somebody unless they are enrolled. 

Watene's drivers, therefore, need to go further into Auckland to the Takanini testing station. 

"They're having to try and park their truck on the side of the road, walk across and wait in line to get tested there," she said.

"For some of my boys, I've had to deviate them off their route. So it's taken approximately two hours out of their day.

"That's coming out of my pocket, obviously. I'm having to cover the cost because I don't feel that my staff should have to pay for this.

"So I'm having to pay for their time to travel, and I'm having to pay the truck running costs. And we're also losing two hours of working time during the day, which could be revenue-generating."

COVID-19: Firms 'getting whacked' by weekly testing requirements to cross Auckland border - business owner
Photo credit: Newshub.

Police unclear on what is required proof of COVID-19 test

Watene said the Takanini testing centre staff had been wonderful, doing all they could to help. But there remained confusion.

"I even had one of my truck drivers stop on the side of the road at the border today to talk to the police officer there, to ask them what it was they needed to show to prove he'd had a test, and the officer didn't actually know," she said.

"He said, 'we don't even know the stage, you can show us the negative test on your phone once you get the negative test.' But other than that, they don't even have clarity around what they're expecting from us."

Watene said she had been clear with her staff about getting proof of their test as soon as they have had one. The Takanini testing station has been printing a type of medical certificate for her drivers. 

"We haven't really had long to prepare for this - If they had a testing station on or near the border, that was testing specifically for truck drivers... that's the only way I can see it working, is having a testing station at the border that is suitable for trucks."

Having new rules enforced without much warning was taking its toll on businesses, she said. 

"We're just getting whacked. You just feel like every time you turn the news on, we're getting whacked with more and more compliance things that are just costing us time and money.

"Most of my staff are the sole or main income earner, to their family. So for me - I don't lie awake at night worrying about dying of COVID-19. I lie awake at night worrying about having enough money in the bank to pay for these 18 staff, and my insurance and bank loans. 

"At the end of the day I've got 18 staff, which is 18 families that are relying on me to make enough money to pay them."

COVID-19: Firms 'getting whacked' by weekly testing requirements to cross Auckland border - business owner
Photo credit: Newshub.

Test proof not needed until Friday - Ministry of Health

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said it was finalising a contract with a saliva testing provider, so workers would be able to get tested that way, but a nasopharyngeal swab is also an option.

The ministry also said workers would not actually need to show proof of a negative test until next Friday, a week after the law comes into force.

This gave time to finalise arrangements for cross-boundary testing, the ministry said.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: The AM Show

Mainfreight gets workplace COVID-19 testing

Last week Mainfreight managing director Don Braid said he had been blindsided by the Government’s announcement that essential workers crossing the Auckland border would need weekly COVID-19 tests.

He has now told Checkpoint progress has been "excellent”.

"We've come a long way in the last couple of days - It appears that the Ministry of Health is working towards [testing at the borders] and trying to find suitable sites.

"They're engaging workplace testing programmes as well, so companies like ourselves and a few others will be able to conduct saliva testing onsite, well before the drivers get near the border."

Don Braid.
Don Braid. Photo credit: RNZ

Work underway for easy COVID-19 testing, including saliva tests - Hipkins

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Checkpoint a team was working to make sure testing was available to essential workers needing to cross the Auckland border, and saliva testing would be an option.

"I can't guarantee that everyone will get everything that they want, but we'll certainly be taking industry feedback on board," he said.