13 Apr 2021

MIQ Covid-19 case of security guard raises questions on use of ministry's testing register

5:35 am on 13 April 2021

The government's move to make it mandatory for all testing of border workers to be recorded in a central register is being derided as months too late.

A health worker puts swabs into a tube after collecting a sample for Covid-19 testing at Sunway Medical Center in Subang Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, on October 22, 2020.

Auckland University professor of medicine Des Gorman says it is ridiculous the register was not already mandatory (File image). Photo: Mohd Rasfan / AFP

Border workers are legally required to be routinely tested for Covid-19, but it's been revealed a Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) security guard who last week tested positive for the virus flew under the radar for at least a month.

The border is what is protecting New Zealand from the Covid-19 pandemic and mandatory routine testing of border workers is key in ensuring the virus doesn't slip through.

But it seems the mandatory message isn't hitting home, with MIQ head Brigadier Jim Bliss yesterday revealing that the security guard, who worked at the Grand Millennium, appears to have not been receiving regular tests.

Health officials know the First Security worker was tested on 8 April, which is when his infection was picked up, but it is not clear when he was last tested prior to that.

"We are still investigating that at the moment but we are concerned that it wasn't in accordance with our 14-day testing regime," Bliss said.

In a policy document on its website, First Security states it is using the national register set up by the Ministry of Health to monitor the routine mandatory testing of border workers.

RNZ contacted the company to confirm this, but it did not respond to our requests.

But if that is the case, it draws into question why health officials don't know when the security guard's last test was.

National Party Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop has long called for use of the register to be made mandatory.

"We had this discussion back in February around the Valentine's Day cluster and the LSG worker and it looked like improvements were going to be made ... to that system," Bishop said.

"Two months on, it looks like those improvements haven't come."

The government cannot say for sure how many border workers there are in total.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said 12,000 of them were on the national register.

"We're monitoring those 12,000 people, they are being tested, their test results are automatically linked back into the register. We can tell when they have been tested and when they haven't," Hipkins said.

Up until now, the testing data for potentially thousands of others has been held by private employers.

But Hipkins said that was set to change.

"I am making the use of the register compulsory. So this will ultimately address this particular data issue and it is predominantly a data issue, rather than an issue of people being tested. But that will mean that we will then have the complete register so we will be able to have all of that information in a format that's easier to report."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned there would be "fines and reputational damage" if private employers did not oblige.

Auckland University professor of medicine Des Gorman said it was ridiculous the register was not already mandatory.

"I, like most people, would be saying 'oh, I'm very, very surprised that we're having conversations about compulsory registers now' - it's April 2021. I would have thought this was something we would have nailed in March 2020," Gorman said.

The success of New Zealand's Covid-19 strategy has caused the government and officials to become terribly complacent, he said.

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