Jacinda Ardern appears frustrated at Judith Collins, David Seymour for 'trying to have an argument' about COVID-19 saliva testing

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared frustrated at Opposition parties in Parliament for "trying to have an argument" about saliva testing for COVID-19, saying they both agree it's an effective tool. 

National leader Judith Collins asked Ardern in Parliament why the Government took so long to respond to the recommendation in September's Simpson-Roche testing review, that saliva testing "should be introduced as soon as possible". 

"There's no defence of this on this side of the House about the use of saliva testing. Who would disagree with using something that isn't nearly as invasive or creates nearly as much barrier as what a nasal PCR test does?" Ardern responded. 

"We view saliva testing favourably; anything that is easier for the workforce is something we'd like to see. However, we of course also rely on the advice of our officials so we're very pleased that they are meeting with some of those who have been advocating for the use of saliva-based testing I believe tomorrow. 

"We've already got it underway in rollouts in some of our facilities and I look forward to greater use of it across the board."

Ardern has come under pressure to introduce mandatory COVID-19 daily saliva testing for border workers in the wake of the latest community outbreak in Auckland. Saliva testing is currently optional for quarantine staff, and was rolled out in January. 

It was delayed, however, due to health officials being deployed in January to work on the Northland community outbreak. It meant that only 140 saliva tests were undertaken since it was deployed as a testing option

"I'm aware of the numbers around how frequently it's been used," Ardern said, when Collins asked if 140 tests was acceptable. "What we do want to see is as much use as possible."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared frustrated at National leader Judith Collins and ACT leader David Seymour.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared frustrated at National leader Judith Collins and ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Parliament TV

ACT leader David Seymour pointed out that New Zealand took "months longer to start using saliva PCR testing than other countries which also have low rates of COVID infections," such as Australia, Taiwan and Singapore. 

Ardern said other countries aren't always on the same path. 

"Ours is not a strategy of just picking up the frequency of all the incidents of COVID. We want to stop every single case and that's why validation is important and that is the issue that health has raised with us.

"Before they remove a reliable form of testing, you have to validate what you're using here. It doesn't matter if it's working well in Taiwan - you have to validate here."

Seymour asked Ardern if she was suggesting that saliva testing is "an either or", to replace the current widespread nasal testing. 

"Of course I understand they could be complementary because that's exactly what we're doing now," Ardern said. "But if you want to get some full benefit from being able to use daily testing regimes, it wouldn't be a bad thing to eventually get it to a level of sensitivity where you're assured it's as such that maybe it could be used as a replacement in the future for nasal PCR."

Saliva testing is optional in quarantine facilities in New Zealand.
Saliva testing is optional in quarantine facilities in New Zealand. Photo credit: Getty

Collins also later asked Ardern if she was suggesting that to use saliva tests would be instead of nasal testing - and the Prime Minister appeared frustrated. 

"As I have said in this House multiple times, absolutely I understand they can be done for the same people. In fact, that's exactly what you want to do when you're going through a validation process," she said. 

"Yes I understand that. It's been relayed many times. But as I've said many times before as well, we want to make sure the validation process is right so that when you're using this you can reliably use it and have faith in the results. 

"My final statement would be this: the members are trying to have an argument based on scientific evidence. If they wish to have this argument, we have provided the ability to speak directly to the officials because I'm a conduit for the advice they're giving us and so we are providing that. 

"I actually don't think we're in a dissimilar position. We agree that it's a useful tool but we have just acted with caution based on the advice we have been given."

Seymour said Ardern gave a "poor performance" in Parliament. 

"She says she's been relying on advice from health officials - advice she has not released - about the technology needing to be verified, despite it having been verified the world over," he said.  

"The Prime Minister also seemed to become confused, suggesting the Opposition was asking for saliva PCR testing to be used instead of nasal PCR testing. But we never have.

"If the Prime Minister does indeed have advice that says New Zealand should be moving this slowly, she should release it for everyone to get their heads around."