COVID-19: Labour MP David Parker still thinks border system 'damn-near perfect' despite worker going 6 months without test

Government minister David Parker says he's sticking by his claims the border system is "damn-near perfect" even after revelations some workers aren't being regularly tested.

Newshub on Thursday revealed a ground handler who recently quit her job hadn't been tested in six months, saying neither her employer nor the Government did anything to enforce the rules - which require frontline workers to be tested every week or fortnight, depending on their role.

Last week MIQ joint head Megan Main told The AM Show there were possibly up to 74 workers who'd never been tested for the deadly virus.

In response, Parker said the border response to date had been "damn-near perfect" - a week later, standing by those words.

"The results speak for themselves - seven incursions after 135,000 people," he told The AM Show. "We don't have community transmission, and there's very few countries that can claim that."

He said with 300 employers, the front line was "big operation" and it's "amazing" the virus hasn't managed to slip through and get a foothold in the community. Previous breaches have managed to be contained through contact tracing and short lockdowns. 

"I know that some of it falls to employers to monitor and that looks like it might have been a weakness in the system." 

National MP Simon Bridges, appearing on the show with Parker, said despite the success at keeping COVID-19 out, the Government's handling of the border had been "incompetent", calling it a "feijoa honesty box" - a phrase he also used last week.

"I can tell you I've got examples - I can't name the company or companies - but you go to the borders, you go to the ports, and their vaccination rates are in some cases 4 or 5 percent. The Government's out there saying they should be 100 percent. It's a big problem."

Simon Bridges and David Parker.
Simon Bridges and David Parker. Photo credit: The AM Show

The vaccine rollout is on track, according to the Government's plan.

"We're in this phase where we're ramping up - we're actually over 100 percent of target," said Parker. "When I looked last night we were 103 percent of where we need to be."

He said the initial tardiness resulted because New Zealand chose to go with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine instead of AstraZeneca. 

AstraZeneca's vaccine is cheaper and easier to transport and store, but there have been widely publicised concerns about its safety. There have been reports of blood clots in recipients, though cases have been extremely rare - just a few per million doses - and at much lower rates than in those who catch COVID-19. 

Without community transmission of the disease, New Zealand had the "luxury" to plan a well-organised vaccine rollout and wait and see which vaccines proved to be most effective in other countries - which rushed them into use, bypassing normal safety protocols - the World Health Organization said earlier this year.

"It was delayed because we went for Pfizer rather than AstraZeneca, and that was the right choice," said Parker. 

"That means that our deliveries are slower. We're building up stocks - I think we've got over 300,000 vaccines on stock now, which means by the time we have the real big push into all of the population rather than the at-risk people, we'll have enough vaccines to go around."

Parker said Pfizer was meeting its delivery promises.

"We were concerned at the start that they might not be able to, again another reason to be cautious as to how fast you roll out the vaccine. But it's going well. I don't think we will fail - we haven't failed on anything else in terms of our COVID response. We're paying more attention to this than anything else."

Bridges queried whether the vaccine rollout was happening quickly enough. Parker pointed out last year in September, he predicted they wouldn't be here until June

"I sat here at the time of the election saying we'd be rolling out vaccines by the middle of the year - and you guys ridiculed me."

"That is true," Bridges admitted. He expressed concern that unless the Government starts a major education campaign soon, "vast swathes" of New Zealanders would turn it down, and we'll fail to reach herd immunity.

"There's a bunch of people in our ports and our MIQs who don't want the vaccine. Why isn't the Government driving an education message?"