1 Mar 2022

Bloomfield misled public over testing capacity, says opposition

4:42 pm on 1 March 2022

Dr Ashley Bloomfield's apology over testing delays is just the latest example of misleading the public, National says, and ACT's David Seymour wants the Director-General removed.

Ashley Bloomfield

Ashley Bloomfield Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Speaking at the 1pm update this afternoon, Dr Bloomfield made an apology over delays to people receiving their test results last week.

In January, the government said PCR testing capacity had been increased to 58,000 tests per day, and up to 77,600 per day with surge capacity for up to seven days.

However, as testing centres complained last week, higher test positivity rates meant batch-testing was becoming unfeasible. Test samples were typically pooled in groups of up to eight or 10 earlier in the outbreak, but a positive test in a batch would mean each would need to be retested individually.

Dr Bloomfield said that prior to 7 February, none of the laboratories had ever exceeded 5 percent test positivity, but the swift increase in positive Omicron cases had affected that. Labs also had other difficulties including vacancies in roles, and sickness because some lab workers contracted the virus.

Dr Bloomfield said this led to a backlog, particularly in Auckland, and the Ministry of Health was not quick enough in responding. He said some people may still be waiting for results from tests taken last Wednesday.

"Once the samples were in the lab it's hard to take them out and redistribute them, so we still had capacity across the network but we didn't have the opportunity to redistribute them and probably if we'd started to do that a day or two earlier, then we may still have had a backlog but perhaps not such a big one."

National's Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop said Dr Bloomfield and the ministry had misled the public, and it was not the first time.

"It should not take an intrepid journalist from Newsroom chasing and chasing and chasing for more than a week to actually find out from the Ministry of Health that our testing capability is not what they said it was.

"Everyone has suspected this, you've had multiple experts from the laboratory and from the testing community on the record saying that the system could not cope with the numbers that the ministry said it would."

Chris Bishop

National's Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"This is not a one-off occurence, this has happened before and most recently as three or four weeks ago in relation to the dodgy graph that the ministry released. It took an intrepid journalist from Stuff ... alongside my Parliamentary questions to finally get the Ministry of Health to admit that the graph that they produced ... was basically just made up.

"Unfortunately this is a recurring theme with this government, around transparency ... I'm still hot under the collar about the fact that the government continues to deny that they requisitioned or commandeered rapid tests when there are multiple people and companies on the record saying exactly that."

Bishop said National would be calling for Dr Bloomfield to appear before the Health Select Committee again soon to explain how the error had come about, but the government had often blocked such requests in the past.

"Unfortunately the government always votes those motions down, they are not interested in scrutiny and transparency and the so-called most transparent government in New Zealand history has proven to be the exact opposite of that.

"I think I'm right in saying we had him on maybe four or five occassions over the course of the year. Frankly, that's totally unacceptable in terms of accountability ... Parliament has authorised the government to spend multiple billions of dollars on the pandemic response, Parliament should be able to hold the executive and the government to account on what that money is spent on.

"They have a very large majority but unfortunately they have misused that majority."

Any ministers who relied on the testing capacity numbers when making statements in Parliament would also need to correct the record, he said.

Fresh start needed - ACT

ACT leader David Seymour went further, calling for Dr Bloomfield to be removed.

"Dr Bloomfield has misled the New Zealand public too many times, made too many bad decisions, and we need to start afresh as we recover from Covid," he said.

"Anybody could have predicted what happened except apparently New Zealand's Ministry of Health."

The error was a major credibility problem, he said, and Dr Bloomfield's decision-making had a poor track record.

"I think based on the quality of the management of the pandemic he needs to go. The things that the government can control - the competence of tracing, the competence of testing, the quality of the rules around isolation and business operation - those things have been abysmal. We've been saved by our isolation, our spread out population, our compliant population. The things that [Bloomfield] was responsible for have actually been disastrous."

David Seymour

David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He also said it was not the first time Dr Bloomfield had misled the public.

"This is the same Dr Bloomfield who said they weren't taking rapid antigen tests, they were 'consolidating them into the government's supply'. He said they weren't taking orders that were already onshore, it turns out they were."

The government has continued to deny it took rapid antigen tests from businesses. While Dr Bloomfield said he had requested that the government order be prioritised over others, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said last month that orders were being fulfilled in sequence, and that the government's large order had been placed before businesses - who may well be affected by global supply constraints.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this afternoon appeared to want to move on.

"I think what's really important is everyone is able to access testing - rapid antigen testing is freely available across the country. What we're acknowledging is there has been a period where people simply waited too long for their PCR test to be processed.

"That has been acknowledged by all of us, [we] worked quickly to rectify the situation and make sure that New Zealanders don't face those delays in the future."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a media conference in Christchurch 24 February 2022.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Nathan Mckinnon

She said there was a range of factors involved, and after concerns were raised last week the ministry had worked to assess what was contributing to the testing backlog.

"Our job is to make sure that we identify what happened, make sure we rectify that, you'll see now that this is not an issue, New Zealanders have acccess to rapid antigen tests.

"The question is should we have moved or transitioned in a different way to make sure that in that peak period we didn't have that overlap which caused a delay unnecessarily for New Zealanders ... he's certainly acknowledged what's gone wrong but our job has to be - collectively between us and the Ministry of Health - making sure that we see New Zealanders have tests available when they need them.

"Clearly errors have been made but at the same time we have a workforce that have been working incredibly hard over this last two years so rather our job is to fix those errors and to make sure they don't happen again in the future."

Dr Bloomfield this afternoon said officials had committed to completing the test processing, and had sent some 9000 tests to Queensland to help clear the backlog.

While processing had reached a much more managable level in the past day or two as New Zealanders shifted to using rapid antigen tests, people still waiting on tests were urged to get a rapid antigen test (RAT).

He says good numbers of free RATs were available now from government supplies - over five million were distributed in the last seven days, over 12 million were in storage, and over 16 million are expected to arrive this week.

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