Border staff, air crew and quarantine workers to be prioritised in COVID-19 testing

Border staff, air and maritime crew, and workers who manage isolation and quarantine facilities will now be prioritised for COVID-19 testing in New Zealand. 

Health Minister David Clark has announced an updated testing strategy to keep New Zealanders safe as more people return home as more flights become available across the globe.  

Testing will be prioritised for border workers in Customs, biosecurity, immigration and aviation security at airports, and the people who clean at international airports or maritime ports.

It will also be prioritised for international air and maritime crew, as well as staff who work in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, including those who drive people entering the country from the airport to the facilities. 

"We took swift action at the start of the outbreak to bolster our testing and our programme has served us well to date," Dr Clark said. "With over 340,000 tests done to date, we have the highest rate of tests per confirmed COVID-19 case in the world.

 "Under our enhanced strategy, priority for testing will be given to those who are most likely to have been exposed to COVID-19 which is our border and airline staff and those arriving back in New Zealand."

Dr Clark said the Government is making it easier for people to get tested for the virus. 

"Anyone presenting to primary or secondary care with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 will be offered testing even if they have no history of international travel or contact with travellers. This is important for surveillance purposes."

He said the Ministry of Health will now "rigorously" monitor testing rates across district health boards (DHBs) and population groups and will conduct a weekly review of testing by each DHB and by ethnic group.

"Importantly, we'll be requiring DHBs to take specific actions to increase access to testing for population groups where there is significant variation to national or regional average rates."

Dr Clark said the Government is making it clear to DHBs the Government's expectation that there will continue to be a low bar to meet to obtain a COVID-19 test.

"We are confident this is the best possible approach, and the one we will be moving ahead with into the future. However, we will continue to review our elimination strategy to ensure it remains as effective as possible in the changing environment."

It comes as the Ministry of Health confirmed two new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand on Tuesday - both in managed isolation facilities - bringing the total number of active cases in the country to 10. 

The Government faced backlash last week after it was revealed two COVID-19-carrying sisters had been allowed to leave an Auckland managed isolation facility on compassionate grounds without being tested first.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded by appointing Air Commodore Darryn Webb to oversee the operations of all quarantine and managed isolation facilities across the country, which are holding more than 4000 people. 

She also made it mandatory to test people in managed isolation and quarantine facilities at days three and 12, and a negative result is required for the day 12 test before people are allowed to leave. 

The minister in charge of managed isolation, Megan Woods, says nearly $300 million has been budgeted to keep the managed isolation system running for the rest of the year, and that about $80 million has been spent so far. 

She says charging for managed isolation is something the Government is considering but that it's complicated and a balance needs to be struck.