The Government has given itself the power to take over COVID-19 testing labs, which one testing business has described as "draconian" and "simply not required".
The COVID-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill, which passed into law on Thursday, gives - among other things - the Government power to requisition laboratory testing material, as well as equipment and staff.
"What this means is that if you invest in the very thing the Government says it wants, then you might get all your stuff taken," ACT leader David Seymour said in Parliament.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says it's part of the Government's contingency planning. But Leon Grice, director of New Zealand COVID-19 saliva testing provider Rako Science, says it goes too far.
"The Bill gives draconian powers to the Minister of Health and the Director-General to direct and, through compulsory requisition, the ability to effectively nationalise testing laboratories for COVID-19," he said in a submission to Parliament's Health Select Committee.
"The proposed legislation targets problems - whether current or anticipated - that do not or will not exist. If new problems emerge, adequate powers of requisition exist under the Public Health Act and Civil Defence legislation, so legislating specific powers is unnecessary.
"More importantly, the testing needs can be easily met by competent procurement and commercial contracts - without resorting to harmful requisition orders or compulsion."
Seymour suggested it sets a worrying precedent.
"These people, for example at Rako Science, have worked incredibly hard for almost two years, using their ingenuity, investment, and contacts with people overseas to bring this technology to New Zealand, and now the Government's saying, 'Actually, if we need it, we'll just take it'. Taking people's stuff is always bad."
Hipkins said the Government was giving itself emergency powers which it would only use during an emergency situation.
"It would be important, if we were dealing with a large-scale outbreak of a vaccine-resistant variant of the virus - as an example - that we were able to make the best use of all of the testing capability that was available to us, because that would be the way we would have the best chance of getting on top of the virus again, bringing the outbreak back under control."
Grice said the Ministry of Health was too slow in accepting international science on the value of saliva-based PCR testing.
"Rako Science has also offered the ministry a protocol from the University of Illinois which would allow us to process eight times our current 10,000 per day testing capacity. This has not been taken up," he said.
"Beginning in March 2021, Rako Science has repeatedly offered to the Ministry of Health to license its technology, for a peppercorn fee, to publicly-owned laboratories to support the public health response. This offer has never been accepted or examined."
It comes after Professor David Murdoch of the Ministry of Health COVID-19 Testing Technical Advisory Group said last month the Government could have been better prepared for rapid antigen testing.
"We could have been better prepared, yes," he told a press conference, after the Government announced a rapid antigen pilot with the private sector after 25 large businesses sought urgent approval.
Hipkins argued at the time that only the most accurate forms of testing could be considered given New Zealand was pursuing a strict elimination strategy.
"One of the concerns there is that, particularly when we're dealing with this and still in this phase where we're trying to stamp out every case that we get, they potentially give people some false comfort."
National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop said it's not good enough.
"Rather than do what sensible people do - meet in the middle, negotiate in good faith, and come to an agreement, which Rako Science wants to do and the Government should want to do - rather than do that, the Government's decided to pass a nasty little provision through this Bill to just say, 'Bugger the negotiation. Bugger commercial agreements. We'll just take your property'. That's what they're trying to do."
Hipkins also defended extending the Government's COVID-19 powers out to mid-2023.
"This Bill extends the life of the Act but it will still have to be regularly renewed by the Parliament, and when it is no longer required, of course, the Parliament won't renew it and therefore all of the provisions enacted underneath it will disappear at that point."
Hipkins said the reason for the extension is the Government "will still require the powers under the Act; for example, the power to require pre-departure tests, the power to require people to be fully vaccinated on arrival in New Zealand.
"Those things rely on this Act continuing to be in existence."