The Parliamentary COVID extracts.

the-virus-is-the-problem

This is edited from the Hansard record. It begins with a statement from the Ministry of Health, Mr Hipkins.

The ministerial Statement

One week ago tonight, the Prime Minister announced that a new case of COVID-19 had been detected in the community. It had been 102 days since the last evidence of community transmission and the virus had returned. While we worked incredibly hard to prevent this, we always knew that it was possible, and we planned and prepared for that. Just as we did when COVID-19 first emerged, we went hard and we went early.

At the same time as the new outbreak was announced, we also announced that Auckland was moving to alert level 3 and the rest of the country to alert level 2. Our approach remains the same as it has throughout the global pandemic. We will contain the virus and we will stamp it out. We’ve done it before, and with the combined efforts of all health workers, contact tracers, lab workers, and our whole team of 5 million, we can do this again.

In the last week, we’ve seen incredible surge testing. There are now 39 designated community testing sites in the wider Auckland region, and mobile testing sites are being redeployed to test close contacts as required. More than 100,000 tests have been processed over the last five days, including a total of 18,421 tests, that were processed yesterday. That is a remarkable effort. The volume of the tests has been made possible through the pooling of samples, the hard work of lab staff, and the willingness of people to front up and to get tested, and I want to thank everybody who’s been involved in that. The sheer number of tests can give the Government and the wider public of New Zealand that confidence and assurance that aside from the current cluster, there is no sign of widespread community transmission.

The source of this latest outbreak is still under investigation. The immediate focus has been on the border and our managed isolation and quarantine facilities, and I want to acknowledge, at the outset, that testing of staff working at our border has been too slow. It has not met the very clear expectations of Minister, the decisions that Cabinet has made were not implemented in a timely or a robust manner, and that is disappointing and frustrating.

But I should note that of course testing is just one of the tools that we are using. All staff working at the border, and in our managed isolation and quarantine facilities, are using appropriate personal protective equipment, using physical distancing, and they’re getting regular health checks. Most importantly, anyone who is displaying symptoms was being tested, but while the routine testing wasn’t happening to the extent that we wanted it to, some—and many—were still being tested. For example, some airport workers were being tested at their local GP, but there was no centralised reporting of the number of tests being conducted, and that was not good enough. My absolute focus has been on addressing this, and the testing has been made mandatory for those working in the front line at our border, and our mobile testing sites have been dispatched to gather those swabs.

In the last week, new systems have been put in place, and all tests involving customs officers, aviation security staff, port and airport workers, and anyone working at a managed isolation or quarantine facility, such as health staff, police, defence force, and hotel staff, are now being coded separately. This allows for a very clear and specific line of reporting so that we know now, as of last night, in Auckland, in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, 2,806 staff have been swabbed on site, with further staff tested at community testing centres and GPs’. At least 97 percent of that workforce has been tested.

Testing is continuing on site. At other managed isolation and quarantine facilities around the country, more than 1,599 staff have been tested. Two hundred and forty one customs officers have been tested in the last week out of 277, and 308 aviation security workers at Auckland Airport have been tested out of 328 in the last week. As of 6 o’clock last night, Auckland Airport had swabbed 2,407 of its 4,474 workers, with a testing team working last night to capture night shift workers. Three thousand four hundred and eight five port workers have been tested. At the Port of Auckland, more than 5,000 staff working for around 800 organisations have accessed the port since 21 July. As at 6 o’clock yesterday, 2,194 of them had been tested. The dedicated testing team is operating with extended hours to ensure that all workers have access to COVID-19 testing, including those working on the night shifts and the twilight shifts.

Ensuring those workers who are most at risk of coming into contact with the virus are routinely tested must be part of business as usual. Health officials are under no illusions that this is what the Government and the public expect and require. The importance of this work is underlined by today’s news of a positive test of a maintenance worker at the Rydges hotel managed isolation facility. This case does not immediately appear to be linked to the current community cluster. Workers at the Rydges facility had been offered testing on 21 and 23 July, and again on 10 and 13 August. This case was identified from the 13 August round of routine testing. This case is now under further investigation.

We now have 71 cases identified in the community; 69 of these have so far been definitively linked to the community cluster. To help limit the potential of further spread beyond the cluster, for the first time we are moving positive community cases into quarantine. So far, 44 cases have been transferred to the Jet Park quarantine facility in Auckland. A further 54 people classed as close contacts have joined them, so that households can be kept together. I want to thank those people who have gone into quarantine. They’re playing their part to help contain the virus.

I also want to acknowledge the effort of our public health units and the National Close Contact Service. So far, 1,880 close contacts have been identified: 1,691 of these have been contacted, and they’re in self-isolation; 55 contacts have been referred to finding services; and just 134 remain awaiting contact. As of 7 o’clock last night, 78.5 percent of close contacts identified between 8 and 14 August have been contacted within two days of being identified. That’s just shy, now, of the 80 percent target, but is a real improvement on the performance of our contact tracing services at the height of the outbreak earlier this year. That reflects the good work that’s been done to ramp up our contact tracing capability, and that work remains ongoing.

Of course, we can all support the work of our contact tracers by installing and using the NZ COVID Tracer app. Since last Tuesday we’ve seen a huge increase in the use of the app, and it is now being actively used by our contact tracers. With just under 1.5 million registered users, it has more than doubled in the last week; 234,000 posters have now been printed and are on display; over 7 million posters have been scanned; and more than a million manual entries have been made. To further encourage the use of the app, the Government’s made it mandatory for all businesses to display QR code posters, and that has to happen by tomorrow.

I like the making businesses do something by force of law when they have not been able to test their own contracted staff.

Question Time

Relax, I won’t give al of it, but it is worth considering that the Prime Minister spun like a top, attributing blame to everyone, and that the leader of the opposition was a lawyer. This is how to make life hell. Hever ask a question you don;t know the answer to,and get it on record.

Hon JUDITH COLLINS (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: What advice, if any, has she received on the most likely way COVID-19 entered Auckland, causing the lockdown which began on 12 August, and what weaknesses, if any, have officials identified in border procedures which may have left New Zealand vulnerable to fresh outbreaks of COVID-19?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): I have been advised that as with all countries which have faced resurgence, we should not rule anything in or out without evidence. That’s why we have undertaken border testing that has covered our front-line agency workers, testing across our managed isolation facilities, contact tracing, and environmental testing—and even secondary environmental testing at the worksite that remains our earliest sign of this outbreak. To date, we have not established the source of the current cluster, but investigations continue.

In terms of border testing, on 22 June Cabinet agreed to fund the Ministry of Health testing strategy, which included testing workers at the border. Previously, there was an issue with the coding of tests which meant we weren’t obtaining the data for reporting when border workers were tested at their GP or a community-based assessment centre (CBAC), so we moved to on-site testing. I am advised, though, that Customs staff, for instance, who were symptomatic were tested at GPs or CBACs. I’m advised that led to approximately 660 tests from the March period onwards.

On 10 July, the first mobile testing at Auckland international airport started, and on 16 July the second round of on-site testing took place at Auckland international airport. Cabinet also set an expectation on 22 July that all managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) staff would be tested, and we were also working to lift the broader uptake of testing across the board at high-risk sites. On 14 August, we made testing mandatory for those at Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga, but I should add there were already health orders in place covering expectations of the way that port workers would operate to ensure their safety. Testing is only one element of the additional precautions we have put in place. Of course, our first lines of defence are daily health checks, because not even weekly testing necessarily picks up cases as they arise; personal protective equipment (PPE) use; and strict operational guidelines that limit contact, for instance, between managed isolation staff and people in facilities, and also those who are working at our borders.

Hon Judith Collins: Does she stand by her statement of 15 July that “[W]e’ve … ensured our front-line workers at the border are safe by wearing appropriate PPE, getting regularly tested, and that our systems for managing returnees are robust and limit the risk of spread. As I say, the system has done the job it was set up to do to date.”; if not, why not?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: The member will know that Cabinet agreed to fund a testing strategy that was released some time after its agreement, which was at the end of June, so I was referring to that testing strategy. We also, of course, had, because of the issues that I outlined in my primary answer—although we were being advised that border staff who may have, for instance, been symptomatic were being tested at CBACs and GPs, and we know, for instance, for Customs there were hundreds of staff tested in that way, because we had no ability to match a staff member’s National Health Index number and where they were working, we started on-site testing. As I said to the member, that started on 10 July. There was more on-site testing, as well, at the airport on 16 July, and we of course had testing happening in our managed isolation facilities—not as comprehensively as we expected or as was set out by Cabinet.

Hon Judith Collins: When she said on 29 June about the border, “We are now amongst the only ones in the world testing every single person who comes into those facilities”, what was her understanding of exactly who was being tested?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Of course, the member hasn’t provided me with the full quote, but, by the sounds of what I was referring to, we were having a debate at that time as to our quarantine and isolation processes for New Zealanders who were returning home. The point I was making at that time was we were mandating testing and moving to mandatory testing for day three and day 12. Not every country requires individuals, as New Zealand does, to go into a Government-approved facility. Many countries still require at-home isolation, and some countries that do require quarantine in a facility don’t mandate testing. We do both.

Hon Chris Hipkins: Has any clear link between the current cluster outbreak in Auckland and any incursion at the border been established?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: No, not at this stage, as I set out in my primary answer. Of course, we have moved through and prioritised testing those at the highest-risk posts at the border, and in those positions we have almost complete coverage now. Not all, necessarily, results will have been returned, but we have almost complete coverage. MIQ: we’re at well over 90 percent of those staff as well. As yet, we have not established a link between the current cluster in Auckland and border staff.

David Seymour: Why, then, did her Minister of Foreign Affairs go on TV and say there was a connection between the cluster and the border?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: That question would be better directed to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Hon Judith Collins: What was her reaction to the news last week that just one week before the current community outbreak, 63.5 percent of all border and hotel isolation workers in Auckland had never been tested for COVID-19 when she herself had said eight weeks earlier that front-line workers at the border were getting regularly tested?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: From the reporting we received from 7 to 13 August, we had roughly 571 border staff that were tested over that period. As we’ve already set out, our estimate of those who would be considered front-line would be about 280. When it comes to those working in managed isolation facilities, on 22 July, after Cabinet started receiving breakdowns of the number of staff being tested—

Hon Paul Goldsmith: Just answer the question.

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Goldsmith, I am. After we received a breakdown of those individuals being tested, it was clear to us that we weren’t getting full coverage, which is why, on 22 July, we set down a Cabinet minute—our expectation that it be mandated that every staff member working in those facilities be tested—because we were concerned about the coverage of those staff. Again, I reiterate, we have not as yet established a link between those staff and this cluster. [Interruption]

SPEAKER: OK, there have now, I think, been seven interjections that have reflected on me, from two members. The next time, the member who makes it will leave.

Hon Judith Collins: Why have not all border-facing staff been tested, eight weeks after her Government said they would be tested?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As I tried to address in my original answer, originally we were using GPs and CBACs in a voucher system. That did not enable us to track whether or not all the staff we expected to be tested were tested. That is why we then moved to onsite testing. That began on 10 July and also on 16 July. It was clear then, once we were able to get numbers coming through from that—although it was never comprehensive because it didn’t pick up anyone tested outside; keep in mind, if you’re symptomatic, you would not be at work to therefore be tested—we identified that that coverage was not what we had expected. We were engaging with agencies around lifting those rates, including with MIQs. It’s why we started mandating the rotation but also questioning with the Ministry of Health why those numbers weren’t representative of the entirety of border staff. As I say, we did start to see numbers lift. From 31 July to 6 August, 211 border staff were tested, and from 7 August to 13 August they reported 571 were tested.

Hon Judith Collins: If, as the Prime Minister says, there were such issues around coding and other matters, then why didn’t she tell New Zealanders of this problem when she knew about it?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: We did identify that issue, which is why we moved to onsite testing on 10 July, because we identified that. We also, of course, as I’ve said, had every expectation—and that is all that I’ve ever articulated—that border staff were being tested, because that is what we were advised.

Hon Judith Collins: How many people—front-line border workers—have refused to be tested?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I was advised by the Ministry of Health that there was an issue—I wouldn’t use the word “refused”—that some staff were declining testing. That was an issue that was raised some weeks ago. It was significant enough that I did choose, for instance—and I believe other Ministers may have—to raise with those representatives in workforce that if that were an issue, could we help support them to address it. Again, I can only report what was raised with me by the Ministry of Health.

Hon Judith Collins: Does she agree with her Minister of Health, the Hon Chris Hipkins, who has indicated to media in the weekend that it’s a pretty tough lever to pull, or a hard lever to pull, against staff working at the border to have them tested, and how does that coincide with the tough lever of having to lock down a third of New Zealand?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I think the member, unfortunately, is really misrepresenting the Minister of Health’s statement there. The issue here, of course, is that from a public health perspective, the practice generally—and I’m sure Dr Reti would reinforce this—happens to be that you have to exercise some caution where you’re compelling people where there is no public health reason, therefore, if someone is asymptomatic to be put through a test, because then you’re going beyond clinical judgment and we are compelling blanket orders. We have moved with orders to mandate that now. Of course, you can see that we were also putting in place every effort to ensure that testing was available and that staff were being tested. I’ve given the numbers at the border. That does demonstrate we were seeing those increasing numbers, but we wanted to make sure everyone who was at risk was, and that is why it has now been mandated through an order to ensure it’s the case.

Hon Chris Hipkins: Can the Prime Minister confirm that mandatory testing has been put in place using the powers under the COVID-19 response Act that was described as a massive infringement on human rights and was vigorously opposed by the National Party?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I can confirm that we have used those powers. We do believe that that is necessary, because we do want to make sure that we have that very comprehensive coverage. What I would also say is that we’ve got to do everything we can to overcome anyone’s reluctance in the community generally around testing, and the message that I’ll send very, very clearly: getting a test does not jeopardise your job. Being found positive does not jeopardise your job. It should not also jeopardise your safety, and I am concerned that that has been an issue raised more generally in the public and that that may cause some reluctance for testing.

Hon Judith Collins: So who, ultimately, is responsible for this system: is it her Minister, herself, or is it actually the Ministry of Health?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As the Government, of course we take responsibility for our resurgence plan, for the fact that New Zealand continues to be one of the more successful countries in the world with our COVID response. This is a tricky virus. There has been no country in the world that has had COVID within it as we have, has got to the status we’ve had, and has continued to maintain the levels of freedom we have. When we prepared for a resurgence plan, the Opposition claimed we were scaremongering. Now they seem to be claiming that somehow our resurgence plan wasn’t sufficient. We have always prepared for this scenario because no one has managed to get themselves to a situation where they haven’t experienced a second wave—no one.

The speaker has spent the entire term protecting Ms Adern from scrutiny, but he’s now up against an opposition that is enraged. Parliament will not rise until September. This will happen every day… because the Government screwed up.

You can give questions to ministers. Mr Reti is a medical practitioner and opposition spokesman on health. The same issues were raised around testing. Mr Reti understands the system from the shop floor, and it shows.

Dr Shane Reti: When he said on The Nation that he had been told several weeks ago that all staff at Jet Park, Auckland, were being tested weekly, who told him that, and did he receive that in writing?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: I was told that by the Ministry of Health, and, yes, I did receive that in writing.

Dr Shane Reti: Did he receive information showing incomplete weekly testing of staff at the border prior to the current outbreak, and, if so, when?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Since I became the Minister of Health, and it’s been, I think, by my count, roughly seven weeks now, I have been receiving regular updates on the scaling up of testing at the border. I’ve been receiving that information primarily to inform my Cabinet colleagues each Monday, but also to be prepared for the regular press conferences that I’ve been doing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where I’ve answered extensive questions on the rate of testing at the border. Right the way through that, members who have been watching that will know that I have been continuing to work on that and I’ve been continuing to say that the testing rates have not yet been at a level to meet my expectations.

Dr Shane Reti: So did those regular weekly updates demonstrate incomplete testing at the border?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes.

Dr Shane Reti: When the Director-General of Health said about the lack of testing of border staff, “There was clearly a dissonance between what the prime minister thought was happening and what was happening on the ground”, what was the cause of that dissonance?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: That’s something that the member would have to ask the director-general.

Dr Shane Reti: Will he release all relevant information he’s received on incomplete border testing, and, if not, why not?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes, of course, the Government will be releasing all of the relevant information, as we’re obliged to do.

Mr Hipkins may be under tremendous pressure (he is also minister for education: Ardern really only has a cabinet of four now) but he is more courageous. He was prepared to acknowledge the error with one word. So should we all.

There were 11 questions asked yesterday. I have quoted from two.