Jacinda Ardern defends COVID-19 response as David Seymour calls for bolstered testing orders, more scrutiny

The Prime Minister is defending the Government's COVID-19 response in the wake of another Auckland outbreak, as ACT leader David Seymour calls for bolstered testing orders and more Government scrutiny. 

Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show on Monday the Government's "cautious approach was the right one", after she announced on Sunday that Auckland would go into a three day alert level 3 lockdown, while the rest of New Zealand sits at level 2. 

It came after a Papatoetoe High School student and her parents tested positive for COVID-19 at the weekend. The mother works at LSG Sky Chefs, which provides catering and hospitality services for airlines. The Ministry of Health has flagged the workplace as a possible transmission link. 

Papatoetoe High School is closed for two days and a testing station is being set up after more than 50 close contacts of the student were identified. She was last at school on Wednesday last week. The mother was last at work on February 5. 

The Government confirmed early on Monday that the daughter and her parents have contracted the more transmissible UK variant of COVID-19, or B.1.1.7, and there is no link to a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility. 

"What that suggests to us is that it's highly unlikely that we're dealing with a breach in our system that the managed isolation or anything that's potentially gone wrong there," Ardern told The AM Show. 

She said a transit passenger could be the source of infection or airline crew, who in some cases have their uniforms sent to where the mother works.  

"We do have the ability to go through and see if we can data-match by contacting colleagues in places where they have got transit passengers in managed isolation, and we're contacting airlines to see whether or not they have a match as well to their crew," Ardern said. 

"We also want to check that it's not being passed on from colleague to colleague in this particular facility that works at our international airport, so testing at that station today will be really important."

The mother undergoes regular COVID-19 surveillance testing every two weeks and last tested negative on January 18.

In August last year, the Government introduced rules for all border workers to take regular COVID-19 tests, or face stiff fines. The rules were beefed up in November for border staff, including increasing the frequency for some of those at higher risk. 

The November rules included weekly testing of ship pilots and some other port workers, fortnightly testing for port workers not already covered, and fortnightly testing for airport workers not already covered who interact with international arrivals or transiting passengers. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Seymour says the settings need to be bolstered again. He said on Monday the latest cases have "potentially exposed further holes" in the Government's border testing regime, which he said "need to be plugged" as soon as possible.

The Government faced serious pressure through August last year when it was revealed by Newshub that many border workers had not been tested despite repeated assurances they were.

Seymour said the Prime Minister's suggestion that airside and landside workers were both employed at the same LSG Sky Chefs facility means all of those workers should be subject to the same regular testing orders. 

"These cases also suggest that the border testing order may need to be amended to ensure COVID-19 tests aren't missed if workers are on annual leave."

Seymour also wants saliva testing for border and MIQ staff to be mandatory and daily. The Government started offering saliva testing to MIQ staff in January as an extra precaution. 

"Rather than a voluntary system for saliva testing it should be made mandatory for all workers subject to the existing COVID-19 Public Health Response testing orders to have a daily saliva test, whether they're public or private employees."

Seymour also wants to re-convene the Epidemic Response Committee, a special parliamentary committee set up during the lockdown last year which enabled the Opposition to scrutinise the Government's COVID-19 response while Parliament was on pause. 

"Yesterday I wrote to the Speaker as chair of the Business Committee asking that the committee agree to re-convene the Epidemic Response Committee. This morning that request was turned down," Seymour said.

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"I made the point that while the original rationale for establishing the committee last April was as a substitute for the House, which was not sitting during the national lockdown, the House is not a substitute for parliamentary committees.

"I argued that COVID-19 has been the biggest thing facing New Zealanders for a year now, changing everyone's lives, and the response to it is now a major portfolio in its own right... Therefore, how the Government handles the response deserves the highest level of scrutiny."

The Prime Minister will provide an update on the COVID-19 situation at 4pm, which will be live-streamed on Newshub.

She told The AM Show the Government has already responded strongly to outbreaks of COVID-19 in New Zealand, from mandatory pre-departure testing of all passengers except for those from Australia, Antarctica and most Pacific Islands. 

The Government has also expanded day one testing in MIQ to all passengers to New Zealand, except for arrivals from those same countries. 

"All of these things because of adjustments to these more active variants."

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