COVID-19: Government to meet with companies wanting to import rapid antigen tests

The government is bowing to pressure from business leaders who want fast acting COVID-19 tests available in workplaces.

A coalition of 25 firms contacted the government on Tuesday, pleading for clearance to import 370,000 rapid antigen devices within the next week.

Ministers and officials are to meet representatives from the group today with a view to piloting the test in select workplaces.

Meridian Energy is the country's largest power generator and its employees are essential in keeping the lights on.

The company wants to use rapid antigen tests to ensure that can still happen.

"One of the risks we're looking to manage is ensuring that we don't have a large number of our essential workers who are unable to work because they're sick with COVID," Tania Palmer , Meridian Energy's chief people officer said.

There are pros and cons to the rapid antigen test: it produces a result in just 15 minutes, but is less sensitive than a nasal swab, particularly among the asymptomatic.

Except in trials at Auckland hospitals and as part of the government's at-home isolation pilot, the tests have not been approved for use in New Zealand.

But a coalition of New Zealand businesses - including Meridian - has this week pleaded with the government to let them import tests to be used at workplaces.

The government's responded by confirming it will pilot the use of the rapid-tests at some businesses and will meet with the coalition today to work out the details.

Palmer explained how the energy company would use the tests.

"Every three, five days ... everyone coming into the power stations or into our Wellington office, which is where our generation controllers work, does an antigen test to do some screening."

Business New Zealand's chief executive Kirk Hope said there's no time to lose.

"Countries all around the world and businesses in countries all around the world have been able to access those tests, that means there's going to be a global supply chain challenge, because there's high demand. So New Zealand businesses don't want to be at the back end of that queue."

Today's meeting comes after a review by professor David Murdoch, which found the government has been hesitant to adopt new testing technologies.

"Naturally with the elimination strategy we were focused on, and that was the right strategy, we were focused on the best tests. I think that did lead to a degree of conservatism, which is an explanation not a justification, but it was certainly deserved to focus on the best tests at the time," Murdoch said.

Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall defended the government's timetable.

Now's the right time to roll them out, now that 80 percent of the eligible population has had at least one Pfizer dose, she said.

"One of the important things to note here is that we're shifting into a different environment with a highly vaccinated population and that means that we have new opportunities. The risks of missing one single case once we're all vaccinated is substantially lower."

Opposition parties welcome action at last

National has been calling for action on saliva and rapid antigen tests for months, and said the government's response showed a theme of no longer having a plan or strategy.

"Professor Murdoch is right when he says the government has been too slow. He's right when he says that we have missed opportunities. It's something that should have been in place much earlier.

"The National Party has been calling for saliva testing since early this year, since February. The Roche-Simpson report said a year ago, in fact over a year ago now, that it should be rolled out as a matter of priority and it is only basically in April this year that the government finally started to move on it."

He said it was good news the government would trial rapid antigen testing with large corporations, but it should have come much sooner.

"The government only moved to set up the testing group a month ago. Rapid tests have been used around the world for many months now, the government should have stayed ahead of the game - trialling and investigating these technologies, not just in the last month but at the start of this year - and their negligence and incompetence in unconscionable."

ACT Leader David Seymour said the government's COVID-19 testing strategy has rightly been slated in a new report and its response is too little, too late.

"The government's approach has been centralised and opaque. Those who have tried to partner with it from the private sector have expressed immense frustration. Nothing has epitomised this more than its reluctance to introduce saliva testing and its ban on importing self-test kits that are widely used offshore.

"Fast tech uptake has shown its value overseas, while the New Zealand government has been widely criticised for its struggles with testing, tracing, and treatment technologies. We should have been a leading adopter of new technology."