24 Jan 2022

Lack of rapid antigen tests disappointing - Business NZ boss

From Checkpoint, 5:11 pm on 24 January 2022

How will critical businesses like food production and freight keep the wheels turning when the full force of omicron hits?

One modeller predicts it could infect up to half the population and depending on who's considered a close contact that could mean many people off work and self isolating.

Business NZ boss Kirk Hope told Checkpoint the single biggest concern for business is understanding who has to self-isolate and for how long.

"Some of those time-frames are going to be real pinch points, particularly with the volumes of people who are likely to be infected with Omicron."  

He said people have not thought through the impact of some households needing to isolate for 24 days if they have a case and close contacts.

"That's going to have a massive impact on every household and every workplace in the course of the year."

Major businesses have been preparing under Delta so they have been breaking their workforces down into teams or shifts and where possible encouraging people to work from home.

"The reality is that once Omicron gets in...it's going to be really challenging to manage."

Other tools would be needed to manage risks among workforces to detect the presence of Covid-19 such as PCR tests and rapid antigen tests.

The rapid antigen tests will be critical but they are "extremely difficult" to get hold of, Hope said.

"Almost all businesses we know of are trying to order them [rapid antigen tests] but they are having real difficulty. It's frustrating and disappointing and quite reactive."

He said almost every business was finding this, including those working at the border, logistics and critical infrastructure.

"It's a pretty wide range."

He said it took "a bunch of businesses" banding together to force the government to remove the ban on importing the RATs which meant at least there was some stock in the country.

"It's too slow and too reactive ....and it makes it really, really hard for businesses to operate in what Omicron will bring us."

So far as keeping critical industries ticking over, he was aware that the Ministry of Health was looking at exemptions for some workers, so that they would not have to isolate for the full 10 days.

Permanent mask wearing and regular PCR tests are among options being looked at, and the ministry deserved some credit for this work, Hope said.

The 10-day isolation period for close contacts was too long which was being proved by overseas experience.

"The government needs to have a very very close look at that to enable the economy and communities to continue to function.

"It's going to start to impact us very, very soon."

Five to seven days would be preferable, he said.

It was disappointing that the government was taking a week to deliver the detail of what the three stages of the Omicron community outbreak meant for businesses.

Business people did not understand what the trigger points would be for localised lockdowns under stages one to three, he said, and they needed a lot more clarity.

Businesses facing the prospect of no staff and no customers also needed to know if they would receive any financial support.

"The costs are still going to mount up for businesses. This will be no different to the previous situations we've seen in lockdowns."