Govt signals purpose-built MIQ facilities as it faces pressure over saliva testing

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 6 Jul 2021, 2:14PM
Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. (Photo / NZ Herald)
Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. (Photo / NZ Herald)

Govt signals purpose-built MIQ facilities as it faces pressure over saliva testing

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 6 Jul 2021, 2:14PM

The Government is looking into longer-term options for managed isolation and quarantine, including purpose-built facilities.

But it is not being drawn on its further plans for after the vaccine roll-out and whether it would continue pursuing an elimination strategy or living with the virus, as seen recently in Australia and the United Kingdom.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an end to Covid-19 restrictions by July 19 despite surging case numbers and conceding there would be more deaths, an approach Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said would not occur here.

Hipkins said as it became increasingly "clear" the virus would be around much longer, it was also clear MIQ facilities would be needed for longer than originally planned.

National Party Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop has welcomed the news, saying while work should have started last year with millions being spent on retrofitting hotels, it was "good that conversation is starting".

Hipkins said 18 months ago when the pandemic was beginning it was not clear purpose-built facilities would be needed.

There were still uncertainties about what capacity was needed but the Government building its own facilities instead of relying on hotels was one of the options they were looking at, he said.

"These take some time to plan, consent and build so are part of the long-term."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said despite some Cabinet papers advising against permanent facilities, they had had some conversations about them.

"In the future not necessarily all those with contracts will want to offer their facilities as managed isolation.

"Something we might do in the future. Nothing immediately on the horizon, we are looking at the future and capacity and where they might be located."

There was not the scale initially to build the facilities to the level needed, Ardern said.

"It is fair to say in the beginning there was also a fair amount of uncertainty about what the future and borders would look like."

Bishop said the hotels had done a "pretty good job" initially but over time shortcomings had been revealed.

There had been millions spent retrofitting them, and Bishop said with Covid being around "for some time" it would be more prudent to build purpose-built facilities, such as Australia was doing.

Bishop said he was concerned about the Government's "sheer incompetence" on rolling out saliva testing.

"In September last year the Government's expert advisers told it to introduce saliva testing as soon as possible. Saliva testing is still a form of PCR testing, but the samples are far easier to obtain and it's kinder that the nasal swabs on those who have regular tests.

"But Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed he still doesn't have a timeline for a nationwide rollout of saliva testing, nine months on from the first recommendation.

"There have been just 386 saliva tests carried out as part of the voluntary scheme adopted in January. Experts say saliva tests has a similar accuracy rate to nasal swabs, and frequent testing would increase our security against Covid-19 at the border."

Hipkins said the testing was at certain sites but there was not high uptake.

Saliva testing was voluntary, more frequent and with more pre-requisites such as not being able to smoke or eat for a period beforehand.

"That has put some people off," Hipkins said.

More employers were being brought on board but it was taking longer than the Government would like, Hipkins said.

The Government has also been under pressure over its rollout of the vaccines for group 4, the general population.

The Ministry was accused in May of quietly changing the timeline on when the general public will be vaccinated from "from July" to "from the end of July", without publicising the change.

Then on Sunday the Herald revealed the wording for group 4 was again changed from "being vaccinated from 28 July" to "they will be able to book their vaccinations from 28 July".

Hipkins, who had previously gave assurances the group 4 rollout would begin in July, said that would now be dependent on how group 3 progressed.

"People will be able to book in but there is no guarantee they will be vaccinated straight away."

Asked about the United Kingdom's recently-announced plan out of the pandemic and ending restrictions despite surging case numbers, Hipkins said he would not "pass judgment on another country".

In New Zealand decisions would likely see "incremental change", he said.

Asked about the timeline for Cabinet approving the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds, following MedSafe's approval last month, Hipkins said they were still awaiting further information.