Coronavirus: Nearly two-thirds of Auckland's COVID-19 border, isolation staff had never been tested a week ago

Newshub can reveal that just one week before our current community outbreak, 63.5 percent of all border and hotel isolation workers in Auckland had never been tested for COVID-19.

The Prime Minister says all staff will now face compulsory tests, but a public health expert says it beggars belief this wasn't already happening. 

They're part of our most high-risk group: airport staff like Customs and Immigration, hotel workers like security.

All work in the vicinity of recent returnees, yet only a fraction had been tested prior to this outbreak.

"It beggars belief that in an environment where the border is your major protection against a second wave that you are not exhausting every possible opportunity to mitigate risk," said Professor Des Gorman, Auckland University public health expert.

The Ministry of Health says as of August 3 - last Monday - 1089 border workers in Auckland had had a test. 

However figures provided to Newshub show there are:

  • 40 Air NZ ground staff
  • 47 Immigration staff
  • 52 biosecurity officers
  • 141 Customs officers
  • 2700 managed isolation or quarantine staff. 

That's a total of 2980 workers. So around 63.5 percent of the Auckland border workforce had never had a test. 

"That is a problem," said Professor Michael Baker, Otago University Epidemiologist.

"We need regular testing of the staff working at the borders and in managed isolation who have contact with infected people arriving in New Zealand because that is how future outbreaks, and probably the most recent outbreak, started."

Prof Gorman said he believes the community "deserves better than such a casual approach to surveillance to possible infectivity among the border workforce".

Jacinda Ardern says all staff will now get a test. 

"We are working through getting testing of all our border staff as we speak. We are giving us a period of time to make sure we do that," she said.

Previously however, managed isolation hotel staff were only being "offered" a test every two to three weeks. Now, it'll be compulsory.

"We are requiring staff to be tested in this round of testing," the Prime Minister said.

But Prof Gorman is amazed it's taken this long.

"I just about fell off my chair yesterday when I heard people say well we are going to test the whole workforce. I had, obviously naively, thought that was already happening."

Prof Baker says a thorough investigation is needed. 

"I think we're at the stage now of doing an official inquiry into the entire outbreak response," he said.

Only then, he says, will we be able to improve our pandemic response in the future. 

Dr Bloomfield points out that all border and hotel isolation workers do go through daily "health checks", like questions about their symptoms and temperature checks.

However, both Prof Baker and Prof Gorman say these staff should have been undergoing regular COVID-19 tests every single week. Clearly in the lead-up to this outbreak, that has not been happening. 

Newshub asked how many of the total 7000 odd border staff nationwide had now had a swab after testing was ramped up and now made compulsory. 

However, the Health Ministry says it doesn’t have those figures as it needs to request them from several different District Health Boards.