Labour's 'patsy' questions prompt Speaker Trevor Mallard to give National extended scrutiny of COVID-19 response

Labour's questions at a Health Select Committee described as "patsy" prompted House Speaker Trevor Mallard to give National extra questions in Parliament to scrutinise the COVID-19 response.

National MP Chris Bishop complained to Mallard after Labour MP Liz Craig - chair of the Health Select Committee - let officials speak for more than 20 minutes about widely accessible information, during a briefing on Wednesday on the Government's COVID-19 response. 

It prompted National to call for the return of the Epidemic Response Committee to hold the Government to account, after what leader Judith Collins described as "farcical nonsense" at the Health Select Committee.

The Business Committee has already rejected requests from National and ACT to re-establish the Epidemic Response Committee, which was established during the alert level 4 lockdown last year to hold the Government to account while Parliament wasn't sitting. 

Mallard said on Thursday in light of the decision not to bring back the Epidemic Response Committee, and considering what happened at the Health Select Committee, Bishop could have four extra questions in Parliament. 

"I've had a look at the select committee, the times involved and the ability for the Opposition to answer questions, and have come to the conclusion that what occurred at that select committee yesterday was not in compliance with the spirit of the last Standing Orders," Mallard said. 

Standing Orders are the rules of procedure for the House and its committees. 

After more than 20 minutes of widely canvassed information from officials about COVID-19 and managed isolation, Bishop's line of questioning at the Health Select Committee led to an important revelation. 

Officials revealed the security worker at Auckland's Grand Millennium facility - who tested positive for COVID-19 last week - had not been previously tested since November.  

The border worker in question is a security guard who should have been tested fortnightly, as per the Government's order issued in September last year. The Government's understanding is that he lied to his employer, First Security, about his testing record. 

But First Security disputes this. The company said in a statement it has proof of up-to-date COVID-19 testing from all guards working at managed isolation facilities.  

Bishop used his extended questions in Parliament to probe COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on how many other border workers have not been tested regularly. 

Hipkins said it's not possible to provide the data because responsibility for compliance with the testing order rests with individuals and their employers. The Government only has specific records of the workers they employ, not private companies. 

"One of the important points to note here is people may or may not need to be tested in a given fortnight or a given week depending on when they worked," Hipkins said. "The records for that sit with the employer. The Government does not collect all of that information." 

Hipkins could confirm that in the past week, 2755 staff working in managed isolation facilities, and 241 workers in quarantine facilities, had been tested for COVID-19. That compares to around 4500 people who are required to be tested on a weekly or fortnightly basis under the order.

The head of managed isolation, Megan Main, told The AM Show 74 border workers might not have been tested for COVID-19 at all.  

While the legal obligation for border workers to be tested regularly has been in place since September, there was no obligation for employers across the border to use the Government's central testing register. Only about 300 out of 589 employers have been using it.

The Government has since announced that from April 27, it will be mandatory for employers across the border to use the central testing register.