17 Aug 2020

Ashley Bloomfield on testing of border staff: 'I don't think there's been a failure'

5:36 pm on 17 August 2020

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield insists there has been no testing failure at the border regarding Covid-19 and nor has he misled the government on the issue.

Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Ashley Bloomfield says officials can't "flick a switch" and begin testing everyone immediately. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

On Saturday, Minister of Health Chris Hipkins did say he was disappointed to learn that staff were not being tested weekly after being assured that was the case.

"That's frustrating, but actually, I'm not going to distract people from doing the job at hand, everyone needs to focus forward."

He took responsibility for his part in the situation and made it compulsory for all border staff to be tested.

Otago University Professor Sir David Skegg also previously said reports showed more than 60 percent of staff working at the border have never been tested. And a border worker also spoke about how she and her colleagues repeatedly raised their fears about the lack of health checks and safety protocols.

Dr Bloomfield said regular testing was being scaled up at the border when the latest outbreak emerged, but he does not believe officials have dropped the ball.

He said border systems were being continually strengthened.

Dr Bloomfield said officials cannot "flick a switch" and begin testing everyone immediately.

"I don't think there's been a failure - there's a desire to look for a point of failure here. Our border systems we have been continually strengthening; we have added in the testing of workforces which was being scaled up as part of belt and braces."

He said he had discussed the issue with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins and he believed their priority was to see the testing being scaled up for border staff and people were working around the clock to ensure that happened.

"I feel the keenness of their expectations."

Asked if he misled the prime minister and Cabinet over testing, he said that he did not.

For the 32 managed isolation and quarantine facilities, the ministry had been working out the best way to test all staff, including some from the Defence Force from Linton and Ohakea at the time of the outbreak.

"And at the same time we were also rolling it out for our staff at the airports and at our 17 ports around the country, but not all of that testing could happen at once so it was scaling up."

This morning Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined in no uncertain terms that Cabinet had been let down regarding the frequency of testing.

"When we ask as a Cabinet for something to happen, we expect it to happen. So of course that has not met our expectations. No one of course said to any point - that I recall - that what we asked for was not happening."

Dr Bloomfield said some miscommunication may have occurred to the government about the scale and frequency of testing that was happening in many complex, diverse workplaces.

"There was absolutely a lot of activity going on to ensure that all the workforces would be tested regularly.

"There was clearly a dissonance between what the prime minister thought was happening and what was happening on the ground, but that doesn't mean we weren't providing information, it may be in the way that information was communicated.

"Remembering we were in alert level 1, the testing was voluntary and, like other New Zealanders, many of those workers didn't necessarily feel there was a need or imperative to get a test, particularly because everyday they were being checked for symptoms including temperature checks."

Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield says there may have been some miscommunication with the government over border testing numbers. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The size of testing teams was being increased so that they could test more frequently, he said.

The ministry was also working closely with DHBs in the main centres for testing as well as doing infection prevention audits of facilities and insisting on increased wearing of masks, he said.

Asked if the mandatory order for testing of border workers introduced in the last week should have been in place from the start of the pandemic, he said once the country moved to alert level 1 testing was still being scaled up, the ministry was working with trade unions and gathering information on shift workers.

A dedicated testing team is operating with extended hours to ensure Ports of Auckland workers have access to Covid-19 testing, a Ministry of Health statement said.

Testing of all government-agency frontline staff at the Auckland border - Customs, Biosecurity, Immigration NZ, Aviation Security - is expected to be completed soon.

In Auckland, where more than 2500 staff work in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, 2100 staff have been swabbed on site, with further staff tested at community testing centres and GPs, the statement said.

Meanwhile, staff at the Ports of Auckland say it is unlikely Covid-19 testing of all 6000 workers will be completed by midnight tonight.

The Ministry for Health has issued a mandatory testing notice for nearly 12,000 workers at the Tauranga and Auckland ports.

That notice was to run until midnight tonight but is being extended as a station only opened at the Tauranga Port at midday.

Ports of Auckland spokesman Matt Ball said they were only notified of the complusory testing on Friday night and it was optimistic to think all staff would be tested by this evening.

He said testing would run as long as it took for all workers to be checked.

Dr Bloomfield earlier confirmed that one of the active cases was a port worker who was followed up as a contact of one the cases linked to the existing cluster. But he did not identify at which port the person worked.

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