Ashley Bloomfield grants coalition of businesses exemption to import 300,000 rapid antigen COVID-19 tests

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has granted a coalition of around 25 businesses across a range of sectors an exemption to import 300,000 rapid antigen tests. 

The coalition of businesses covers industries including manufacturing, energy, food production, telecommunications, freight, aviation and aged care. 

It comes a week after the Government announced plans for a rapid antigen test pilot with the private sector, following an urgent request for approval from businesses to allow them to protect critical worksites. 

"Some of the businesses in this group are already using rapid antigen tests successfully overseas, and their international experience has helped develop this New Zealand scheme," says Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall.

"We will continue to refine, learn and iron out any issues in this first phase, before we look at how this testing can be rolled out as part of our wider COVID-19 response.

"To begin with, businesses will use nasal swabs. Rapid antigen testing can provide a result within around 15 minutes. But they tend to be less sensitive at detecting cases, so PCR tests will remain the mainstay of COVID-19 testing in most situations."

The Government has previously been reluctant to allow rapid antigen testing because of its tendency to be less sensitive to picking up COVID-19 cases, thus posing a risk to the strategy of stamping out every case. 

But now that the Auckland outbreak is spreading, rapid antigen testing will allow businesses to keep their workforces safe, as vaccinations ramp up. 

"Businesses are focused on protecting the health and safety of their teams, as well as ensuring their critical work sites can continue to operate when there are cases of the virus in the community," Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood said.

"Rapid testing is a vital added layer of protection to help identify chains of transmission and ensure workplace continuity."

He thanked the Government, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Ministry of Health for their "quick response" to the calls of businesses. 

The businesses have signed up to a charter with MBIE and the Ministry of Health, committing to work together and share insights to inform any wider rollout of rapid antigen testing to other work sites.

"This is about supporting businesses to increase levels of testing amongst their workers, harnessing innovation, and supporting the COVID-19 economic recovery," said Dr Verrall. 

"Our priority is to safeguard the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders. We are committed to engaging and working constructively with businesses and communities, as we continue to swiftly identify and respond to cases of COVID-19."

Professor David Murdoch of the Ministry of Health COVID-19 Testing Technical Advisory Group - which had been reviewing testing methods - said last week the Government could have been better prepared for rapid antigen testing. 

"We could have been better prepared, yes," he told a press conference, as the Government announced the pilot.

National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has been calling on the Government to introduce rapid antigen testing for months. 

"Rapid antigen testing has been effectively banned in New Zealand by Government fiat, with a trial only recently starting at hospitals in Auckland," he said last week. 

"The Government's inaction on using different testing techniques has been disgraceful and this has been confirmed by the Government's independent Technical Advisory Group on testing."

Bishop says rapid antigen testing should be used for all essential workers, including healthcare workers, aged care support staff, supply chain (transportation, ports and airports), emergency first responders, and high-risk customer-facing roles such as in supermarkets, schools and universities.