There is a growing divide between the Opposition parties and the Government over management of the border.
That divide is now starting to be defined by the debate over daily saliva testing.
Opposition parties claimed the Government’s reluctance to introduce it was because they were ideologically opposed to private sector involvement in the Covid response.
Last September the Simpson-Roche report on Covid testing strategy advised that priority should be given to broadening the range of testing methodologies employed.
“In particular, saliva testing as a complementary methodology should be introduced as soon as possible to increase the acceptability of testing across workforces and the community,” it said.
“Every effort should be made to steadily reduce the turnaround time for delivering test results so that regular testing becomes more effective.”
Though epidemiologists are calling for it; the Prime Minister and Government Ministers continue to insist that New Zealand needs to evaluate the available saliva tests to see whether they are as accurate as the existing nasal swab test.
This is despite a swag of overseas studies showing they are.
Only three weeks ago, Australia approved a Singapore developed saliva test which it is now using for daily tests of its border workers.
Unlike the swab test, the saliva test is non-invasive; can be done quickly in large numbers and the results processed within hours.
That makes it possible to test 10,000 people a day and get the results the same day.
Raho Science which is promoting the University of Illinois test maintains that its test had already been validated here.
A company spokesperson last night said the test had been established and validated already in New Zealand laboratories using fresh positive and negative saliva samples from the US.
“The data is New Zealand data; it is of no consequence that the samples came from the US<’ she said.
“The Rako test is the SHIELD test developed by the University of Illinois, but it has still been separately validated and accredited for use in New Zealand.”
“It is accredited by International Accreditation New Zealand for use by IGENZ an ISO15189 medical testing laboratory; the laboratory being used by Rako Science. “
Despite this, the Prime Minister during Question Time in Parliament maintained that saliva testing was not as accurate as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing—the nasal swabs—“ which is why we like to use them, because unlike other countries that like to undertake general surveillance and have a tolerance, we need to pick up an individual case.”
ACT Leader, David Seymour asked whether she was aware that an analysis of 16 different studies into people using saliva testing in Australia, North America, and Europe, published by The Journal of American Medical Associations last month, found that saliva testing was as accurate as PCR testing.
“ I’m not an expert on the testing regimes,” she said.
“I am, of course, sharing what has been shared with me directly from our health authorities.
“ But I again put in the context here that we are doing this.
“I imagine that those processes have had validation, so I would imagine we would want to go through the same process to make sure that we can get the same level of rigour with saliva testing as we do with PCR testing.”
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told the daily Covid press conference that he wasn’t going to rule out expanding saliva testing, “but it would be as an addition to our existing testing regime, not as an alternative to it.”
The Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, said he wouldn’t say the Ministry was reluctant to use it.
“We are actually trialling it in a number of our quarantine facilities around the country,” he said.
“I think the second point here is the data we have.
“First of all, not all saliva tests are the same, so some are better than others.
“The data we’ve presented on the one that there is a company wanting to use here in New Zealand is from North America.
“We would need to validate that in the New Zealand setting, just as we did with PCR testing at the outset, and that’s what we want to do.”
National’s health spokesperson, Dr Shane Reti, called on the Government to “move” saliva testing.
“We were told on 10 August is saliva testing as a routine option for surveillance testing is well over a month away,” he said.
“OK, then maybe in October—that was in August.
“No, it’s still coming in September.”, and in October, we were hearing it may be at least two months away.
“It just seemed to get away on us,” he said.
The political divide was clearly evident in Parliament yesterday when ACT Leader, David Seymour, forced an urgent debate on the latest Auckland lockdown.
In doing so, he stole a march on National and appeared to be the senior Opposition leader.
His speech hinted at a view that is developing currency on the Opposition benches, and that is that the Government is dragging its heels on saliva testing because it involves profit-making private sector companies.
“This Government obsessively tries to do everything itself,” he said.
“It is unwilling to step back and make clear rules of the game in order that the private sector can get on with it.”
Almost in vindication of that argument, the former Associate Health Minister, Green MP, Julie-Anne Genter opposed involvement by the private sector in the Covid response.
“ On the one hand, they’re (National and ACT) complaining the Ministry of Health isn’t good enough, or the border isn’t good enough; on the other hand, they’re arguing that the private sector should be brought in to sort it out,” she said.
“I can say that, in the United States, where my parents live, the private sector was brought in for personal protective equipment, and it was an absolute disaster.”
This debate is far from over.