Cabinet set an "expectation" on July 22 that all managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) staff be tested for COVID-19, but it was not compulsory until after the latest outbreak, a timeline given by the Prime Minister shows.
The Government has come under fire since Newshub revealed last week that one week before the outbreak in Auckland, more than 60 percent of all border and hotel isolation workers in the city had never been tested.
That was despite the Government announcing a new testing strategy on June 23 which outlined the prioritisation of testing of border workers and airline staff - those most likely to have been exposed to the coronavirus.
The new strategy included "regular health checks and asymptomatic testing of all border facing workers" - but the Government has since admitted that the amount of testing happening on the ground did not live up to its expectations.
The value of the now-mandatory testing of border-facing workers was highlighted on Tuesday by the positive result of a maintenance worker at the Rydges Hotel managed isolation facility in Auckland - the first case outside of the original cluster.
The Prime Minister, facing accusations by the Opposition of a "systemic failure" at the border, provided a timeline in Parliament on Tuesday to paint a picture of how the testing of border-facing staff had been rolled out.
Timeline of testing policy:
- 22 June - Cabinet agreed to fund the Ministry of Health testing strategy. Ardern said there had previously been an issue with the coding of tests when border workers were tested at their GP, for instance, so on-site testing would be implemented.
- 23 June - This is not part of Ardern's timeline. It's when asymptomatic testing of border-facing workers was supposed to start, but a spokesperson for MIQ Minister Megan Woods told Newshub the first testing of MIQ workers was at the Rydges on July 21 - a month later.
- 10 July - The first mobile testing at Auckland International Airport began.
- 16 July - The second round of on-site testing took place at Auckland International Airport.
- 22 July - Cabinet set an "expectation" that all MIQ staff be tested. Ardern said the Government was also looking at "lifting the broader uptake" of testing across the board at high-risk sites.
- 14 August - Testing was made mandatory for workers at Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga. Ardern said there were already health orders in place covering expectations of the way that port workers would operate to ensure their safety.
Health Minister Chris Hipkins said in Parliament 2806 MIQ staff had been swabbed on site by Monday night, with further staff tested at community testing centres and GPs. He said at least 97 percent of the workforce had been tested.
But as of Monday night, almost half of Auckland Airport workers had not been tested, with Hipkins revealing that only 2407 of its 4474 employees had been swabbed. Less than half of staff at Ports of Auckland - 2194 out of more than 5000 - had been tested.
Hipkins acknowledged that testing had been too slow.
"I want to acknowledge, at the outset, that testing of staff working at our border has been too slow. It has not met the very clear expectations of ministers, the decisions that Cabinet has made were not implemented in a timely or a robust manner, and that is disappointing and frustrating," he said.
"Ensuring those workers who are most at risk of coming into contact with the virus are routinely tested must be part of business as usual. Health officials are under no illusions that this is what the Government and the public expect and require."
Ardern said testing is only one element of the precautions the Government has taken.
"Our first lines of defence are daily health checks, because not even weekly testing necessarily picks up cases as they arise; personal protective equipment (PPE) use; and strict operational guidelines that limit contact, for instance, between managed isolation staff and people in facilities, and also those who are working at our borders."
Opposition leader Judith Collins told The AM Show on Wednesday morning there has been a "systemic failure" over the testing of border-facing staff.
While the source of the Auckland outbreak is still unknown and there is no official connection to the border, Collins said she thinks it is "pretty obvious" the virus had "come in from somewhere".
"We had all been told all the workers facing the border were being tested. Turns out that wasn't true and now eight weeks later they're scrambling to get everyone tested," Collins said.
Collins claimed on Tuesday to have been contacted by MIQ staff who said they had been refused COVID-19 tests, while Ardern has claimed that there had been some reluctance from MIQ staff to be tested.
All staff and guests are being re-tested at the Rydges Hotel where the maintenance worker tested positive, and MIQ Minister Dr Woods told The AM Show there are "not a large number" of close contacts to investigate.
All of those close contact tests have so far come back negative.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the Government acknowledges the cost that comes with the latest outbreak, with estimates of the weekly economic cost of the current restrictions ranging from $300 million to $600 million.