8 Feb 2022

Ministry statement on rapid antigen test requisition 'unclear' - Hipkins

6:39 pm on 8 February 2022

A Ministry of Health statement admitting rapid antigen tests (RATs) in the government's order were already in the country was unclear and has led to incorrect conclusions, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says.

Chris Hipkins

Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The government has had continuous assurances suppliers are filling RAT orders in the sequence they were received, he says.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Health made a statement that appeared to contradict earlier statements from Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

It acknowledged the ministry "did take the full February allocation from Roche and their stock on hand in New Zealand as part of having our orders fulfilled by Roche", though this "did not include any 'delivery confirmed' Roche orders".

Claims surfaced two weeks ago of businesses finding their orders of the tests had been diverted or requisitioned into a larger government order.

At the time, Bloomfield denied the tests had been commandeered, but said some had been "consolidated".

Ashley Bloomfield

Dr Ashley Bloomfield Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"We have discussed with our three main suppliers - which are Abbott, Roche and Siemens - that forward orders of tests that haven't yet arrived in the country, that those be consolidated into the government's stock, so that it is there for the whole country including private businesses," he said in a broadcast briefing to media.

He also said he had instructed Abbott to prioritise the all-of-government order over those of businesses, but denied tests already onshore had been requisitioned.

Hipkins this morning clarified that Roche had been fulfilling orders in the sequence they had been made, something the supplier confirmed.

"They are fulfilling the orders in the order that they received them and the Ministry of Health's order arrived first," he said.

Taken together, it suggests Roche tests already in New Zealand were indeed added to the government's order, but with the provisos that delivery to businesses had not yet been confirmed, and the government's order came first.

Hipkins said the ministry's statement could have been clearer.

"So I can understand why the conclusion was reached ... the conclusion was incorrect," he said.

"I'm not entirely sure what the Ministry of Health were meaning to suggest in that statement ... the advice that they have consistently given us is that there's no requisitioning involved, that Roche in particular ... are fulfilling the orders in the order in which they received them and the Ministry of Health's order came in first."

Asked if the ministry's statement was unhelpful, he said it "certainly led to a lot of questions that I think potentially aren't, and some people reaching conclusions that don't seem to tally up with the very clear advice that we've been given".

"Nobody to my knowledge is getting everything they have ordered, from any of the companies that are supplying the tests. There's a degree of ... allocation that they're having to do because of the international shortage of tests."

National's Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop said it had been a shambles from the start.

"We were told by the government that they'd just consolidated those orders - which, frankly, it's just sophistry - then they said that they'd just taken the forward orders ... hadn't actually seized any tests that were already in the country. Now it turns out as per yesterday that's actually not true, they had taken Roche tests already in the country."

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National Party Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Tests that businesses had ordered, had signed contracts for, paid deposits for, in some cases - as we now know - were actually in the country ... they are getting them later than they otherwise would have because the government cut the queue, basically."

He called for the government to apologise to businesses who may have been affected, ensure businesses RAT orders were fulfilled, and smooth the way for more RATs in legislation.

"I mean it just beggars belief that I can't go to a supermarket now and buy a rapid antigen test before I go visit my grandmother in a retirement home ... it's very standard practice in almost every developed country around the world.

"Obviously the government's got a role to play in this because we've got to ensure effective distribution throughout the public health networks ... but the private sector has a role to play as well, government shouldn't be taking their stuff, and then as we go forward in the next few months supermarkets and pharmacies have a role to play in this as well.

"As the government's just demonstrated in the last two or three weeks there is supply out there ... either supply is tight and they have to take it from the private sector or the government's done an amazing job buying rapid tests - you can't have it both ways."

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall argued the government was simply quick off the mark.

"People who ordered after that may well have been disadvantaged in trying to obtain RATs because of the globally constrained supply," she said.

"We have asked for our orders to be consolidated, but the challenges we face - both private and public - are the same because of the tight global market."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern backed that up.

"We as a country are working very hard to make sure that we have what we need for all of our sick individuals and all of our workers that may need them as well," she said.

"We have placed orders with multiple companies, we've been advised that they are filling those orders in the sequence they received them and obviously we got in early ... we haven't taken orders that were being dispatched to others, we were simply having our own ones filled."

Jacinda Ardern speaks to media

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

For Bishop, it was not good enough.

"What you've seen is essentially a lack of transparency from the government because they're embarrassed at their own incompetence at not ordering rapid antigen tests quickly enough at the tail end of last year," he said.

He repeated his criticism of the government's pace in responding to the pandemic in 2021 onwards.

"We had the developed world's slowest vaccine rollout ... when Delta hit in August there was no plan - and that's been revealed by official government documents, they started planning for Delta when Delta hit.

"Now we've got no Omicron plan, we've been late on boosters, late on kids' vaccines, late on updating our mask guidance, now late to develop the digital technologies, late on rapid antigen testing, late on saliva testing. It's not just me saying this, the government's own experts said that.

"Sir Brian Roche's continuous review group has been deeply critical of the lack of progress on things like saliva testing, rapid antigen testing, right from September 2020."

ACT leader David Seymour accused Bloomfield of hiding the truth about the government's procurement of rapid antigen tests.

He said there has been a breathtaking level of spin from Bloomfield.

"If Dr Ashley Bloomfield is stealing people's stuff and hiding the truth, then he needs to be criticised," Seymour said. "I'd be a derelict in my duty if I didn't."

He said too much emphasis had been put on the work of civil servants and not on elected ministers.

Businessman Sir Ian Taylor said he has emails from "major companies" in front of him that contradict what the prime minister and officials have said today about the government's commandeering of rapid antigen tests.

He told Checkpoint businesses talking to him are afraid that currently, if they step up and counter the government's argument, their staff will suffer as the government starts to allocate rapid antigen tests that it should have been ordering year a year ago.

"In principle, the prime minister was right, they didn't go off and nick them out of the store house, but they actually took the orders and shifted these things."

RATs can provide results within 15 minutes and over multiple tests can provide accuracy approaching that of PCR testing, so are useful for frequent "surveillance" testing.

Dr Verrall said there were about six million of the tests in New Zealand now, many of them distributed throughout the health system and community.

The supplier, Roche, said it recognised acceptance of the orders as a contractual obligation and would continue to fulfil RAT orders to New Zealand customers in the sequence that purchase orders were placed.

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