No more fitting expletive could be applied to the frustrations of Hawke’s Bay and other businesses around a product of critical importance to coping with Covid … Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs without the exclamation point).
Use of RATs to detect presence (or, hopefully, not) of the virus amongst workers is a critical tool for identifying infected workers (who should therefore stay home and self-isolate) and non-infected (who can therefore remain in the workforce).
With some sectors estimating potentially crippling 30-40% levels of Omicron-related absenteeism, the need to keep as many workers working as possible is essential for the economy to function … and for most critical services to be provided.
And there’s the rub … and the controversy in NZ.
If RATs are scarce, who gets them?
NZ businesses and opposition politicians claim the Government has: a) been too slow to embrace the importation/use of RATS; and b) then realizing its mistake, ‘seizing’ or ‘seconding’ for its own use RATS ordered by foresighted businesses. Both critics and Government are building their ‘evidence’ regarding this contention.
So, this week the Government proudly announced that over 55 million RATS would be available for use in February and March to help manage the Omicron outbreak. However, the announcement attributed this achievement to contacts made with manufacturers “last week and over the weekend” to secure 36 million of those. Sounds like someone finally got the memo.
The Government insisted that all businesses were free to source and use approved RATs. Yet, at the same time, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has acknowledged that the Government indeed asked manufacturers to prioritise government orders over commercial ones.
Several Hawke’s Bay businesses BayBuzz contacted were ahead of the curve in terms of ordering and using RATs.
From Tony Clifford, Pan Pac managing director: “When the Ministry of Health approved four importers to sell Rapid Antigen Tests to the public in early December, Pan Pac sourced a responsible amount of kits for our staff and contractors. After seeing the supply shortages in Australia in January, Pan Pac sourced additional kits just prior to the Government requisition. However, we are mainly using PCR tests onsite, with RATs used for staff and contractors who have been away from site for longer periods. We see early identification of Covid-19 to be of benefit to our people, our business and our wider community.”
Unison reported: “[We have] an existing stock of tests on hand to support business continuity, with further shipments arriving during February and March.”
Napier Port, on the other hand, is testing extensively (about 1,000 surveillance tests a week) using PCR screening, and offering help to other HB businesses with this approach, as described in this accompanying post.
No one really disputes the appropriateness of Government’s treating certain workers – for example, in the food biz, health care workers – as high priority and taking steps to ensure RATs are available to optimize critical workforce availability.
I suppose most BayBuzz readers – even ACT supporters – would like some reassurance that their doctors and nurses are available to provide care and not needlessly in self-isolation, as opposed to say, their swimming pool installer.
That said, it does appear that major businesses like Napier Port, Countdown and Mainfreight were far head of Government in anticipating and preparing for an absenteeism crescendo that should have been as plain as the mask on your face.