Coronavirus: Government to make testing register mandatory after admitting it doesn't know how many border workers are being swabbed

Health authorities have made a sudden change to a policy about high-risk border workers after Newshub asked questions about the Ministry of Health's testing processes.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed to Newshub on Friday he intends to make reporting to the Government's testing register mandatory for all border employees amid revelations it wasn't known how many of them had been swabbed.

"All relevant employers have had a specific duty to keep records of testing since last year," Hipkins said.

"However, last month, to make the system clearer and easier to administer, I signalled my intention to make reporting to the register mandatory for all relevant employers at the border.

"Ministry officials have been engaging with the border sector on the plan, and I expect to be in position to make a decision and any amendments to the order shortly."

The testing order for people like quarantine bus drivers, airport staff, and hotel security is clear - get tested either weekly or fortnightly. 

"If your workforce is covered by a testing order, you have responsibility to make sure they are being tested," said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

So how many workers are not meeting the testing order, and how many are skipping, delaying or refusing tests? Official information shows such data "is not held by the Ministry" - in short, health officials have no idea.

"It is mission critical, and so I think more effort should be put into trying to get that kind of information," said Auckland University Professor and data modeller Shaun Hendy.

Professor of Medicine Des Gorman agrees. 

"This is very, very worrying because this is, in my view, a very casual attitude to something which requires clear and explicit management."

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The Government set up what's called a Border Workforce Testing Register, to track testing of workers, but it's a voluntary system. Around 12,000 workers are using it, but another 4000 are not.

"That's an alarming shortfall," said Prof Gorman.

Those representing hotel workers say their members are getting tested, and employers are recording the data. 

"It's very strange though that they're requiring the employers to collect this information and then not doing anything with it," said Unite Union national secretary John Crocker. "It's a concern for the border as a whole."

Prof Hendy says it'll raise questions for the Ministry of Health.

"We have seen leaks from our border facilities from time to time, and the Ministry would want to know: is that because testing is not taking place?"

There are calls to see the optional register be made compulsory. 

"This is a conversation we should have been having a year ago, and it should have lasted 30 seconds," Prof Gorman said.

"The border is so important - this is a requirement, there are no exceptions."

The Prime Minister has a warning to workers who aren't being regularly tested. 

"There is a penalty regime for employers who are not doing that."

The problem is, the Government doesn't know with a high degree of accuracy who's following the rules and who isn't - so no penalties have been dished out.