COVID-19 testing oversight could see thousands scrambling to get pre-departure tests over Christmas-New Year period

A man booked on a flight out of New Zealand just after New Year's says he and thousands of others could find it difficult to leave the country after making an unexpected discovery about COVID-19 testing over the holiday period.

Canadian Josh McConnell told Newshub he plans to move back to Toronto with his Kiwi wife on January 5, 2022. The pair have flights and a layover hotel in Los Angeles booked.

But now they're worried if they'll even be allowed on the plane after stumbling upon an issue that could make it incredibly difficult to get a pre-departure test within the 72-hour timeframe required.

While McConnell understands the situation is unique and unforeseen, he says he and potentially thousands of others are "falling between the cracks" - and he's desperate for the problem to be addressed.

But the Ministry of Health and Air New Zealand have both said it's not their issue to sort out, and have put it back on the passengers themselves to find a solution.

What's the problem?

The issue is to do with New Zealand's pre-departure testing policy, which requires all international passengers to return a negative COVID-19 result less than 72 hours before their flight is due to take off.

Normally this is a feasible requirement - but over the Christmas holiday break, it becomes a significantly trickier prospect because of the way public holidays fall on the calendar.

In a one-in-seven-year event, Christmas Day (December 25) this year falls on a Saturday and Boxing Day (December 26) on a Sunday; while the following week, New Year's Day (January 1) is on a Saturday and the Day after New Year's (January 2) is a Sunday.

These public holidays are all Monday- and Tuesday-ised, resulting in four days in a row of public holidays on two occasions: between December 25-28 and January 1-4.

That's a problem because passengers departing New Zealand on December 28-29 and January 4-5 need their test results within 72 hours, but GP clinics and lab testing facilities will largely be closed for longer than that leading up to those dates.

As a result, hundreds and potentially even thousands of people could find it difficult to get pre-departure test results back when they need them.

Even for those leaving the country on adjacent dates - such as December 26, 27, 30 and 31 and January 2, 3, 6 and 7 - many laboratories will not have had 72 hours to work through their testing backlog, meaning many hundreds more may miss out.

'We're kind of stumped'

McConnell says after discovering the problem, he reached out to Air New Zealand for guidance but was told it wasn't their responsibility - a message they reiterated when Newshub made contact.

He then contacted the Bay of Plenty DHB, as he was going to be in the region in the lead-up to the flight, and was surprised to hear it was something they had been expecting calls about.

"They just said, 'we were kind of worried that this might bubble up to something, because there is no plan for it right now'. They were kind of concerned about what was going to happen, as they were a bit in the dark," McConnell recounts.

He was then advised to get in touch with the Ministry of Health, which he did this week. He's so far yet to hear back.

The ministry did respond to Newshub's questions, but in a statement washed their hands of the problem as pre-departure tests for international travel "fall outside of the public health response".

A spokesperson said these tests must be arranged privately, and community testing centres could not be used if people were struggling to find somewhere to get one done.

"Anyone who requires a pre-departure test for international air travel, must make arrangements for this themselves and cover any costs associated with testing," they said.

"A list of 'Testing for Travel' service providers can be found on the Healthpoint website. These are private providers and it is up to them to determine their hours of operation over the holiday period."

The spokesperson said urgent care clinics should be open during this time for pre-departure testing, but McConnell isn't convinced.

"I'm not so sure they would want hundreds or thousands of people coming in to take up space just for travel purposes over the holidays!" he said. "For a one-off situation maybe, but there will be so many people needing the same thing."

The Christmas period is known to be a peak time for preventable injuries, so it's likely to already be a busy period for urgent care clinics without a surge in non-urgent pre-departure COVID-19 testing. The ministry did not respond to a question about whether this was a concern.

McConnell says the problem is a major source of stress and uncertainty for him and his wife.

"We have no issues driving somewhere to take the test or paying whatever the cost is, it's just the fact that there's no guidance anywhere and we're just looking for an answer," McConnell told Newshub.

"There's no FAQs about this and everyone just kind of says, 'this is going to be the situation'. And I get it: it's the holidays in the midst of a global pandemic, things fall through the cracks. I totally am sympathetic. It's just for us, the main thing right now is having an answer."

"We're kind of a bit stumped."

A quick look at Auckland's COVID-19 testing laboratories opening hours over the holiday period shows there are a handful that will remain open right throughout. But some will be closed, likely causing a greater workload for those that remain open, which could further delay departing travellers getting results.

McConnell says he's banking on the fact that because it's an issue that could impact thousands, some sort of arrangement will have to be made.

He wants the Government to put a plan in place so people in the same boat know there are going to be some options out there.

"People need to know there are stations they can go to. It doesn't have to be broad strokes, all of them - just have an FAQ up saying 'those who happen to be one of the few impacted, these are the stations you can go to and rest assured there will be labs open to process them'.

"But as of right now, GPs and the labs are closed on public holidays."

The ministry told Newshub it works closely with laboratories, and there are protocols in place to process and return test results as quickly as possible.

"Generally results are available within 48 to 72 hours from receipt of the sample at the laboratory, however this depends on testing volumes. It should be noted that during a community outbreak, samples of high-risk individuals and close contacts of cases are prioritised by laboratories.

"Laboratories in the testing network work collaboratively and at times of high demand are supported to deliver results in a timely way. This includes transfer of samples to laboratories across the network, to reduce turnaround times for results."

"COVID-19 testing remains a priority over the Christmas and New Year period and we encourage people to get tested if they are symptomatic. Community testing centres will be open throughout the holiday period. For most up to date information on testing sites and availability go to the Healthpoint website."

"Healthline will also be available during this period should anyone require support to access a test."