Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is pushing back on "an attempt to build a case for our opposition" to COVID-19 saliva testing, as National leader Judith Collins calls for it to be mandated.
The Government started offering "less invasive" saliva testing in January at quarantine facilities as a "precautionary measure" in the wake of more contagious variants of the coronavirus popping up in managed isolation facilities.
Collins is now calling on the Government to make daily saliva testing mandatory for border workers and arrivals to New Zealand, in the wake of new community cases of COVID-19 emerging in the community, sparking Auckland's third lockdown.
The Ministry of Health is trying to find out whether one of the cases - a mother who works as LSG Sky Chefs which provides laundry services for international flights - caught the virus at work. If that's the case, there's an argument for more regular testing.
"We don't know at this stage whether or not the mother at the centre of this has got COVID-19 through her work, but it does seem remarkably remiss that there isn't mandated testing," Collins said on Tuesday.
Indirect border workers like the mother are supposed to be tested every two weeks though it's not Government-mandated. The Government is now considering whether it should be, because right now it's up to employers to decide if it's necessary.
"I can understand people would be very concerned about the nasal test because it's not something you could have every day because of the nature of it. But certainly a saliva test needs to be mandated," Collins said.
"The fact that the employers can or might not add information to the Ministry of Health spread sheet basically, or data collection, seems really slack."
Collins said there "seems to be a reluctance" from the Government to adopt new technologies to fight COVID-19. Questions have also been raised about why it took so long for the Government to adopt CovidCard technology.
"I think it's really important that the Government talk to us and tell the public about why we don't have that now," Collins said of mandatory saliva testing. "We see it as something that could be done in addition for returnees so not instead of the nasal test for returnees."
Air New Zealand is already rolling out voluntary saliva testing in partnership with Kiwi business Rako Science, using technology developed at the University of Illinois. Rako Science has the processing capacity for 10,000 tests per day.
Ardern says the Government is not opposed to saliva testing.
"There seems to be an attempt here to build a case for our opposition to saliva testing. There isn't one," she said at her post-Cabinet press conference.
"But there's a view that we need to make sure we integrate it and that we've got the right capacity to do it safely and that we're not compromising other parts of the system. I think that's all fair."
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said there is some interest from private employers in doing saliva testing of their workforce and the Ministry of Health is providing advice to the Government about it.
"We have indeed talked to the company and Air New Zealand to see what role, if any, saliva testing might play in the overall response of New Zealand."
Collins said the Government needs to be more upfront with New Zealanders.
"When we found out that border staff were not being tested - that was mid-last year - after the Government said they were being tested, that was wrong. When the Government told us that New Zealanders would be front of the queue for vaccines and it turned out we were nowhere near the front of any queue for vaccines, that is something people should be questioning," she said.
"We know this is difficult but that's why I'm saying the Government shouldn't close off options when it comes to facilities and testing systems and also treatment."