Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is set to reveal the latest on New Zealand’s Covid-19 situation and the vaccine rollout.
Hipkins has just announced that all border workers who need to be regularly tested will, from mid-August, be able to have saliva PCR tests instead of the more invasive nasopharyngeal testing.
Such testing will be rolled out for those who need to be tested every week, and progessively rolled out out for the other workers over several months.
The Ministry of Health has been reluctant to allow saliva testing to replace the nasopharyngeal PCR test, even though that has been recommended by the independent advisory group chaired by Sir Brian Roche.
Roche had previously said in September last year – as part of the testing review he did with Heather Simpson – that saliva testing should be rolled out as quickly as possible.
The National Party has also been calling for saliva testing to be more widely available for months, and while the Health Ministry was ready to roll out daily saliva testing at the border in January, so far only 400 samples have been taken.
Hipkins has previously suggested that worker reluctance is a reason for the low take up.
“The Ministry of Health’s advice is that saliva testing is an increasingly viable and reliable method for public health surveillance purposes,” Hipkins said today.
Yesterday, 13 more crew members tested positive for Covid-19 in managed isolation after coming off a ship docked at Wellington – and another ship has docked at Port Taranaki with crew suffering “flu-like” symptoms.
The 15 crew members from the Spanish-flagged Viking Bay deep sea vessel, which included the two people who tested positive last week, are all in a quarantine facility in Wellington.
Five Covid-negative crew members are still aboard the vessel and will be subject to additional testing in the coming days.
Testing continues for the vessel, where reports of flu-like illnesses originated last week. It had applied for a change of crew while berthed at Port Taranaki.
Today the Herald revealed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken with Pfizer boss Dr Albert Bourla twice this year, including once last week after the delivery of a crucial shipment of Pfizer doses.
The Government has faced criticism over its vaccine rollout, and Hipkins has conceded expectations could have been better managed – especially for group 3, including those 65 and over.
The Government announced its first purchase agreement with Pfizer in October last year – for 1.5 million doses – subject to the vaccine successfully completing all clinical trials and receiving Medsafe approval.
Medsafe approved Pfizer on February 3, and the vaccine rollout started later that month. As of last Wednesday, just over 500,000 people – about 10 per cent of the population – were fully vaccinated.
Amid criticism for allowing international mariners infected with Covid-19 onshore putting the country at risk, Ardern said New Zealand “has an obligation” to help those in distress.
She was, however, asking more questions about obligations to help with re-crewing efforts for similar foreign-flagged vessels that had no economic interest and were “against our environmental interests”.
Auckland University professor Des Gorman told Newstalk ZB he was “very concerned” and said they should never have been allowed onshore in the first place.
The whole point of the quarantine system was to leave the virus offshore, with measures like pre-departure testing, he said.
“Here we have shifted the risk from offshore to onshore. Now we have 15 highly infectious people sitting in a building in Wellington. This is not how you do business.”
He said it was “very likely” they had the highly infectious Delta variant and said they should be confined to their hotel rooms to prevent any outbreak.
Ardern said the crew aboard the Viking Bay fishing ship should not have been kept at sea.
New Zealand had an obligation to those who “may be in distress or need medical assistance” within the country’s geographical boundaries, she said.
The mariners are at the Grand Mercure in Wellington, which has opened up a second floor to isolate them. The 5-star hotel is a dual-use managed isolation facility which houses both infected and non-infected returnees.
Ardern said the Government had done all it could to ensure there would be no transfer of the virus.
Despite the Grand Mercure not being a dedicated quarantine facility, Ardern said it did adhere to the same standards.
“We do everything we can around infection control. We have had Covid cases in Wellington facilities before, we maintain the same infection controls in any facility where people might have Covid regardless if someone has tested positive.”
The Spanish-flagged vessel hasn’t been fishing in New Zealand waters and was not operating on behalf of a New Zealand fishing venture, MPI says.
On the escalating situation in Fiji, where there are now more than 9000 active cases in isolation and 56 deaths linked to the current outbreak that started in April, Ardern said it was “devastating”.
She has asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to contact officials there again and offer specific medical equipment that may be needed.
On issues with MIQ slots, Ardern said while demand was high it would inevitably drop over time. The Government was also constantly looking at ways to stop any “gaming” of the bookings system.
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