Coronavirus: Government could enforce testing of indirect border workers to prevent further outbreaks

The Government could enforce testing of indirect border workers to prevent further outbreaks in the wake of the latest COVID-19 community cases in Auckland. 

The new outbreak came as the Government delivered some good news: the first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines arrived in New Zealand on Monday morning at 9:30am - bringing hope in a vial. 

"It is good news that it is here earlier than previously predicted," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield summed up how we're all feeling: "Sometimes I certainly feel it, and I'm sure New Zealanders do... COVID-19 can feel like being on a roller-coaster that you haven't actually bought a ticket for." 

The rollout to border workers is still on track for Saturday. But it's still too late to prevent our latest outbreak. The Prime Minister insists that getting the vaccines earlier wasn't possible.   

"No, you will have seen that already this is a timeline that is earlier than initial expectation," she said. 

The snap lockdown has caused a snap reaction; hundreds of people charged the pop-up testing station at Papatoetoe High School on Monday, worried it's our latest super-spreader.

"I was scared," one student told Newshub. 

A mother said she was "so worried" because she's an essential worker. 

The school has about 1500 students and one of them has the uber-contagious UK variant of the coronavirus. But testing for the strain here is straining resources, with some people telling Newshub they had to wait for two to three hours. 

The student and her parents could be the start of our latest COVID-19 cluster. Her mother works at LSG Sky Chefs doing laundry for international flights and their crews. But we may never know the source. 

"We will not rely solely on being able to answer that question," Ardern said. "We'll look for good, solid containment and confidence as well as being able to build as much of a theory as we can."

Genomic testing has found no connection to any COVID-19 cases in New Zealand. The mother is the most obvious link to the border but her daughter could also be the index case.  

"However, we don't want to miss anything," Ardern said. "That's why we continue to treat one member of the household as being potentially the index case."

Indirect border workers like the mother are supposed to be tested every two weeks though it's not Government-mandated.

She was tested on January 18. She was supposed to have another test on February 1 but was away that day. She then went on another holiday on February 5 - without receiving a test. On February 12 - 25 days after her last test - she was finally tested again.

"It's a bit like asking people to voluntarily pay tax, rather than having a requirement for it," said National leader Judith Collins. 

The Government could change the rules to enforce testing of workers like the woman. 

"We right now are going through the order again making a judgement on whether or not we need to increase the amount of testing scope based on the variants we're learning," said Ardern. "It could change because we constantly make changes."

It's not the only timeline drawing consternation. After learning about the new cases the night before, the Prime Minister's appearance at the Big Gay Out was cancelled - but the event was still allowed to go ahead. 

"The Big Gay Out was essentially already underway," Ardern said. 

Hours later, Auckland went into lockdown. 

Analysis by Political Editor Tova O'Brien

It's extremely unlikely we'll come out of lockdown earlier than midnight on Wednesday. 

The Government will have a check-in on Tuesday to look at the latest data. But it's almost certainly going to want more time to see the results of testing done on Monday and Tuesday. 

It's heartening that there are no positive results from close contacts yet. But we'll get a much clearer and more accurate picture of what's going on on Wednesday when the bulk of the results come through. 

Cabinet will meet on Wednesday morning to pore over it all - that's when a decision will be made.