Coronavirus: Senior quarantine whistleblower says staff were refused regular testing programme despite pleas

A senior quarantine official says workers requested a regular testing programme "multiple times", but their concerns were ignored. Credit: Newshub

A senior quarantine official has blown the whistle on the border-testing botch-up.

He says claims that staff were reluctant to be tested are not correct - and that workers requested a regular testing programme "multiple times", but their concerns were ignored.

"They haven't taken our protection or the wider community's protection seriously by not having a testing programme," he tells Newshub.

The worker, who's been at the airport ten years, says frontline staff requested a regular testing programme "multiple times", but management declined this.

"Just [got] told it wasn't available, or they didn't have the resources to do it," he says.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins says "they should not have been declined tests".

And Biosecurity New Zealand Northern Regional Commissioner Mike Inglis says they've "made sure that we've encouraged staff to be tested".

"At any point if a staff member feels ill they've been told to stay at home," he adds.

And Newshub can reveal that in the past month, at least 18 Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) staff, who interacted with returnees, have been sent from the airport to work in other parts of Auckland and other cities - all without a COVID-19 test.

It was on June 23 that the Government announced its border testing strategy. But no such strategy was ever put in place.

"As for regular testing, there was nothing," the quarantine official says.

Seventeen days after that announcement, on July 10, a mobile testing unit was set up at the airport.

But the Prime Minister says some workers didn't want tests.

"We have picked up on reluctance among staff," Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show.

National leader Judith Collins says Ardern is "entirely wrong".

And Newshub's insider says staff have not been reluctant.

"Definitely false. Staff were upfront wanting tests and were making themselves available for them," the official says.

Those representing staff like the front of house workers and room attendants at managed isolation hotels say they too have not resisted tests.

"The issue has not been from our members, or our workers getting in the way of testing at all," says Unite Union national secretary Gerard Hehir.

He says if a policy is announced, it must be implemented.

"It shows the danger of policy by press release, that actually there needs to be follow-through," he says.

Newshub can also reveal that since July 17, when that airport testing station had already been in place, three MPI workers were redeployed from Auckland Airport to Hamilton, 15 were sent to work at other sites in Auckland. Seven also travelled to Christchurch or Wellington for training and none were tested for COVID-19.

"Before the staff were moved around the country, there was no mandatory stand down, there was no testing required or anything," the quarantine official says.

Inglis acknowledges this is true.

"No, they were not tested prior before leaving, at that stage, it was alert level 1 in terms of restriction," he says.

Inglis added that since testing of staff ramped up, all MPI staff working at the Ports of Auckland and Tauranga have been tested, and all but two of the staff from Auckland airport had been tested. He said no-one has returned a positive test result to date. 

Inglis says the staff who were not tested prior to leaving Auckland airport for other duties, did have to observe other rules, like social distancing and hand washing. However, staff say given they work in a high-risk passenger-facing role, testing should have happened sooner.

Also on Tuesday, Hipkins made an important admission, saying in Parliament that he knew the testing of border staff was incomplete as he was getting weekly updates of the situation.

Ardern was frustrated on Monday after Newshub revealed the lack of testing, but said that no one told her or the Cabinet that what they'd asked for had not been delivered.

So the question remains, why did the Minister not inform Ardern of such a fundamental failure at our borders?

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