The Ministry of Health behind the eight ball
OPINION: As we get used to living with widespread Covid, microbiologiest Siouxsie Wiles is calling for a new way to track how much of the virus is in the community and what variants. She says in the UK they regularly test a representative sample of people, which more effectively monitors the virus. Should we introduce this instead of the current long queues for rapid antigen tests? An MP from each side of the House gives their views. In the red corner
Throughout this pandemic, the Government has continued to adapt our public health approach to safeguard the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders based on the expert advice of medical and science professionals. When Covid-19 changes, we change.
Testing has played a central role in our response. We have worked hard to ensure that testing has been free and available for those who have needed it – and many of us have, either because we have been a contact or symptomatic.
The efforts of our testing and contact tracing workers, as well as those in our labs, cannot be overstated. An incredible number of tests have been taken and processed. And, as country, we have been a pioneer in genomic sequencing. Until Omicron, we were sequencing every test – not just a sample.
To these workers, I want to say thank you. Your efforts have helped to keep us all safe.
Testing remains a cornerstone of our approach, but with widespread Covid-19 in the community for the first time, we needed to adapt. Rapid antigen tests are now our go-to testing tool. These perform best when case numbers are high, and can give a quick result without drawing on lab systems.
Rapid antigen tests are available for free to people who need them, and others who just want to be tested for peace of mind can purchase them from places such as pharmacies.
People with symptoms and their households can order free tests online or over the phone. Once you place the order, you’ll be able to collect it at a local collection point listed on the Health website. We are standing up more collection points every day.
I know that Covid in the community can be stressful but it’s disappointing to hear so many stories of workers at testing sites copping abuse.
Please be patient with those on the front line. There are plenty of rapid antigen tests to go around.
To date, population wide surveillance testing hasn’t been necessary in New Zealand, as prior to this Omicron outbreak the percentage of our population with Covid-19 has been very small. However, it is certainly something to consider as another tool in our toolbox now that we have more widespread infection.
We will continue to engage with experts about what future surveillance might be appropriate.
But for now, the most important thing is: if you need a test, you can get a test.
In the blue corner
To put it mildly, the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and other modellers have been grossly inaccurate in their attempts to model Covid-19 infections in New Zealand.
They told us that we would have 50,000 cases per day by Waitangi Day weekend, so we can be forgiven for treating Wiles’ suggestions with a healthy level of scepticism.
It’s not just me saying that either, the Minister for Covid-19 Response said himself that modellers’ predictions were equivalent to weather forecasts, and that he was ‘‘sceptical’’.
Actually I think the Minister is being very unkind to weather forecasters, they are much more reliable.
If we are to be charitable we could say that New Zealand’s response to Omicron has been average, and the responsibility for this lies with the Government, who are forever blaming others for their mistakes.
The Ministry of Health are behind the eight ball and have been for some time now. Finally, they admitted, what those who have been waiting over five days for their Covid PCR test result already knew, the Ministry of Health cannot process tests fast enough. The claim that they could process 58,000 tests per day was frankly farcical, they have let us down when we really needed them.
What the Minister needs to understand and admit, is that he does not have all the answers, and neither does his inner-circle of modellers or the Ministry.
The fact of the matter is, Rako Science are already doing what Wiles has suggested and they collected more than 20,000 saliva samples across an eight day period last week, with the majority of those samples being from asymptomatic individuals.
The Minister would do well to learn from Rako Science, who not only have a more efficient testing protocol, their saliva test is much more user friendly and less invasive than the old school approach that the Ministry use.
So what is suggested, is already being done by a private company, filled with experts who genuinely understand epidemiology and testing.
A better approach would be to use Rako Science’s data, and if necessary ask them to expand their testing. Why reinvent the wheel by asking the Ministry to duplicate the process?
The facts are quite clear. The Government has over promised and under delivered when it comes to testing capacity, this is too important to wait for them to learn on the job. There is no shame in admitting you don’t have capability and contracting others to do the work alongside you. Swallow your pride Minister, we deserve better.