Shane Reti on Covid testing in isolation

National MP and Opposition spokesperson on health Dr Shane Reti spoke in General Debate in Parliament yesterday on day three Covid testing of people in isolation.

Dr SHANE RETI (National—Whangarei): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to speak today about another hole in our border with day three testing, and I want to address it in several ways. First of all, it’s sort of a surprise. We’ve had the big surprises—the staff who weren’t being tested like we were told they were. This is a little unusual in that it’s only a small surprise to the Government, but unusually they will not fix it. I want to talk about it in four areas. First of all, I want to walk through the risks of not testing at day three. I then want to cover why day three testing’s important. My third point will be the process for counting those who have not had tests at day three, and, hopefully, my fourth and final point will be New Zealanders’ expectations and solutions.

So let’s start first of all with the irrefutable facts that we heard the Minister affirm today. They are: day three testing is not compulsory and the Government does not know how many have not been tested at day three. Those are just statements of fact, so let’s set that as the anchor and progress from there. I want to talk through the implications of not testing at day three and I want to create an imaginary unknown positive—not quite a carrier, but I’ll call it an unknown positive—who turns up at Auckland Airport, or any border actually, is positive but doesn’t know it; more specifically, they then do not have the day three test. What are the implications for this unknown positive of not having a day three test?

Well, first of all, let’s talk about all those who are close contacts. Their family members: clearly, they are all at risk from this unknown positive. We know there is cohort mixing, unfortunately, in isolation facilities. All those other cohorts are put at risk by this unknown positive. And if we look at a study that I’m hoping to come to shortly, a Nicholas Steyn and Shaun Hendy study, they say one of our biggest risks in our whole border policy configuration is the number of people that are interacted with—they say about five—in managed isolation. Imagine if one of them was the unknown positive.

The third thing I want to talk on is the Minister focusing on “Oh don’t worry. It’s all about day 12. It’s all about also having that two-week period.” Well and good maybe, but what about staff—if we just don’t focus on returnees for a while. Staff will be exposed to the unknown positive. Surely that can’t be a good thing. These are some of the risks.

I then want to talk to why day three testing is important. Without mandatory day three testing, the first time a returnee is tested in New Zealand is day 12—12 days after they’ve arrived in New Zealand! That’s a long period of time from our border. If we look at what happens when you do test positive at day three, it’s so important you’re immediately escalated to quarantine. That’s how important it is to have the day three test.

I think even more damning—and we knew it, and the Minister confirmed it here today—is that the majority of positive tests in managed isolation are the day three tests. We estimate between 30 to 40—something like that. Imagine if we didn’t pick them up. Imagine if we hadn’t picked up those 30 to 40 positive tests at day three and who they might have infected.

I’ve mentioned briefly the policy settings. The director-general referred to this paper [holds up a document] on—I think it was—Friday, when he said “Look, we know our policy settings are good, because it’s been tested by Nicholas Steyne and Shaun Hendy, and they’ve said, yep, it’s pretty good.” A small problem there. If you have a really close look at that, one of the input parameters to the modelling is day three testing is compulsory. That is part of our issue. If the whole policy setting has been grounded on day three being compulsory, and they’re quoting from this paper, we’ve been working on a flawed basis. That needs to be relooked at. What are the implications for making this modelling not compulsory?

The third point is the process for counting. How can we not count people who’ve not been tested? Let me go back through the mathematics. We know how many people have been in managed isolation. We know how many have been tested. Why is this not a simple subtraction? And indeed some of the media did exactly this last night and came up with a figure of 6,000 to 7,000 people. How can we not count those who have not been tested?

Fourthly, if we ask New Zealanders today, “What did they think is happening at the border?”, they think people are being tested twice. Some will know day three and day 12, but they think returnees are being tested twice, when in fact the reality is it is not compulsory to have the day three test. They think that we are having the day three test, because the director-general said so on 9 June, because the Minister of Health said so on 22 June, and the Prime Minister said in this House on 23 June “Testing of people entering New Zealand will commence in the week 8 June. These people will be tested at day three and day eight.”

There is a solution. There’s no surprise—no surprise at all—and the solution is not that hard: test at day three. We test at day 12. People understand that. I do not understand why we wouldn’t test at day three. I believe New Zealanders want a test at day three, and I commend that solution to the Minister.

More from Reti in Question Time: QT: more details on Covid isolation and border testing