Commentary

Rapid Antigen Tests essential to managing Omicron

February, 2022

By: Brett O'Riley

Chief Executive, EMA

The EMA says it has looked at what is happening in Australia and other countries and concluded that Rapid Antigen Testing (RATs) is what is going to keep New Zealand open for business and avoiding the “big sick” for our workforce.

Chief Executive Brett O’Riley says nasal swabbing and COVID-19 tracking systems in Australia are overwhelmed by the Omicron COVID-19 variant, and we need to have a variety of Rapid Antigen Tests stockpiled ready for use in businesses, homes and public facilities.

“The spread of this new, more virulent, strain is unfortunately inevitable and it’s impossible for businesses to put effective plans in place to continue to operate unless they can test staff quickly, easily and cost-effectively. We need RATs to minimise infection transmission in the workplace and to enable access across our international borders for returning New Zealanders and skilled migrants,” he says. 

Mr O’Riley says that currently access to RATs is restricted and you pay for them yourself, but the Government needs to immediately ease this by approving the test kits for wider use, funding kits, and not missing out on more opportunities for easy access to supply.

“One of our EMA members can import RATs that are already approved and being used overseas including in Australia. They have millions of kits readily available in New Zealand. Unfortunately, they have not been able to get approval here yet and again we seem to have an opaque procurement process that is not focused on the right outcomes, further risking our economy and communities. We would have thought the Ministry of Health’s saliva testing procurement fiasco last year would have created a better process this time around but that does not appear to be the case after several months of frustration.”

Mr O’Riley says what colour the country is in the COVID traffic light system will be irrelevant if the situation in some Australian states is replicated here. There extended stand downs for staff caused by waiting for tests and results has meant mean up to 25 per cent of people are absent from work. This would have a catastrophic impact on businesses and public services, including the health sector.

“It won’t matter if businesses are able to operate, they simply won’t have the ability to because they won’t have the staff. We know the skills shortage is biting even harder and there’s a need for everything from truck drivers to programmers, chefs, waiters, carpenters, engineers to project managers. With the current Immigration and MIQ situation, employers are certainly not going to get any from overseas in the short-term to fill the gaps,” he says.

Mr O’Riley is very concerned that the despite indications by senior government Ministers that RATs would be widely available in November last year, they are still not being given the required urgency for distribution.

“The fact that a Kiwi company able to access kits being used in New South Wales, the United Kingdom and Singapore cannot get approval here, and the lack of detail from Government about preparation for Omicron, means businesses perceive that we are not as ready as we should be for Omicron – this feels like Delta all over again.”

For companies in New Zealand – including EMA business members – who are using the small number of available RATs it is working well. But the current process is not an option for all businesses because of the lack of kit availability and costs.

“What’s the hold up? New Zealand cannot afford to go into another extended lock down, and we want to help be part of the solution that keeps our economy open and our communities safe. A huge part of that is using RATs.”

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