Jab and counter-jab continue over a Government tender for 5000 air purifiers and 2500 CO2 monitors for schools.
The systems are regarded as key tools as pupils return to classrooms at a time when Omicron community cases are on the rise. Air purifiers help scrub Covid-carrying molecules from the air. CO2 monitors measure the amount of carbon dioxide in a crowded room. Too much is a warning sign of poor ventilation, which increases the risk of infection.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick asked questions in Parliament about the tender on December 14 after concerns were raised by Tether, one of the company's involved - or rather, sidelined - which is based in her Auckland Central electorate.
Covid-19 Response and Education Minister Chris Hipkins missed a December 22 deadline to respond. This afternoon, he supplied written responses (see below). But in Swarbrick's opinion they reveal little.
"Despite waiting more than a month for the answers to some basic questions on ministry processes for procurement, we're largely none the wiser on how or who these contracts were drawn up," Swarbrick told the Herald.
"That opaque process is the reason schools are still waiting for their CO2 air monitors, which could easily have been produced and installed locally, to world-leading specifications."
The Auckland Central MP added, "This is not an isolated incident. As I've spoken to producers of PPE and Covid-mitigating products throughout Aotearoa, it's become clear there's something really fishy with these processes.
"For fear of being blacklisted, next to none of these local companies are willing to stick their neck out and talk about how they've been mucked around, their skills and experience, investments in production capacity and our people overlooked, which while completely understandable, enables this to continue."
The ventilation and monitoring tender echoes a situation early in the pandemic when the Government awarded a $38m contract to create a new vaccine management system to the multinationals Deloitte and Salesforce. Ian McCrae, CEO of the incumbent - Auckland-based Orion Health - was furious his company was not involved in a truncated tender process, where public health emergency provisions were used to skirt MBIE's usual procurement guidelines.
When the Herald first canvassed the tender on January 25, Tether said it was surprised it had not been asked to pitch, given its CO2 monitors - manufactured in Auckland - had earlier beaten 58 rivals to win a $7m Kāinga Ora (Housing NZ tender).
Tether chief executive Brandon van Blerk had heard the contract for CO2 monitors had gone to an overseas company.
After the Herald went to press, the Ministry of Education said it had bought 2500 Aranet4 portable CO2 monitoring devices, made by Latvian company SAF Tehnika, which were delivered in December via Auckland reseller Butler Techsense]. It was classed as an emergency tender, which allows for a truncated process that bypasses a number of MBIE's Procurement Guidelines, including Rule 16 which makes it a "priority outcome to increase the number of New Zealand businesses contracting directly to Government".
Why were the Latvian units chosen?
Ministry of Education associate deputy secretary, property delivery Sam Fowler told the Herald in a statement: "As part of the toolkit for schools we were interested in portable CO2 monitors with screens, which would be simple for schools to use, so they could quickly test different spaces without fixing them to a wall."
Tether's van Blerk said the company's Covid Care sensor could be wall-mounted in a minute or stood on a desk. It could be carried from room to room. And, while it lacks a screen, it does connect to a cloud dashboard and a mobile app - and, unlike the Latvian kit, it allows for trend data to be stored and mapped against various locations.
"The MoE never approached us to ask any of these questions. The first we heard of MoE's requirements was through the media. We did try to open a dialogue with MoE on several occasions last year but were rebuffed."
Swarbrick asked Hipkins, "Had any effort been made to procure CO2 monitors in Aotearoa New Zealand, before, during or after an international company was engaged in a potential contract for their provision?"
Hipkins reply did not directly address that question. "I am advised the Ministry of Education has entered a contract with a New Zealand-owned company to supply a one-off order of C02 monitoring devices, which they are sourcing from an overseas company," he said. Hipkins added that the MoE had an existing environmental monitoring contract with an NZ company.
Separately, in comments to the Herald, the MoE's Fowler indicated there was still scope for other players. "We plan to return to the market to identify products and suppliers to meet any future air monitoring needs," he said.
With the 5000 air purifiers - where the contract was also awarded in a closed tender - there is a question over timing.
The MoE went with units from Samsung. However, the ministry says its order was not finalised until December 24 "and since then we have been finalising logistical details like shipping".
Hipkins said in a written response to Swarbrick today that "I received an Education Report from the ministry regarding the school ventilation approach under Covid-19 on 19 November 2021 which I approved on 21 November 2021." The MoE ordered the 5000 units on Christmas Eve.
The first 500 air purifiers will arrive in March. The remaining 4500 are scheduled to arrive by June.
Paul Wiggans, managing director of Auckland Blue, says his company has 2000 ActivePure units in stock, and could deliver them to the Ministry of Education immediately. And he says he could supply enough for every school by April.
The ActivePure air purifiers are made by US company Aerus and based on Nasa-designed technology.
As with Tether's monitoring hardware, they have a local track record. Wiggans has Active Pure contracts with several DHBs and Southern Cross Hospitals. The Herald understands they are now also used in several MIQ facilities.
Wiggans says he doesn't want to throw rocks at the Ministry of Education. He understands its procurement team was operating under constraints imposed higher up the government food chain.
But he was still surprised that, after talking to the MoE in December, his firm did not get to pitch for the 5000 air filter contract.
"I would have thought they would have returned to the market if they wanted hundreds of units, let alone thousands," he says.
Wiggans says he's confounded that the Government said it was an emergency tender, but then ignored thousands of air filters already in the country, ready for the start of Term 1, in favour of waiting until mid-year.
The MD also raises questions about the scope of the tender.
New Zealand has around 35,000 classrooms.
One argument takes most out of the frame for air purification and CO2 monitoring, because they are already sorted for natural ventilation.
Tender documents sighted by the Herald said that the standard of ventilation in any given classroom depended on the building code at the time it was constructed. "Our initial estimate is that up to 80 per cent of our teaching spaces are able to meet the WHO and CDC recommendations for naturally ventilated spaces."
Good ventilation management could turn a further 10 per cent of classrooms into low-risk spaces.
Wiggans says he's all for natural ventilation. "It's the best type of ventilation." But he adds that many schools now use heat pumps, which are being used for air conditioning during the record hot February days most of the country is enduring - and using a heat pump means keeping windows closed. The same goes in winter, when heat pumps are used for keeping classrooms warm.
The MD concedes his ActivePure's kit can cost the thick end of $5000. That means it would cost more than $100m to put one in every classroom.
But that sum has to be seen in the context of the cost of the overall Covid response. Treasury, for example, estimated the cost of the Delta lockdown at $8 billion. Wiggans notes that the Australian state of Victoria ordered 51,000 air purifiers in a A$190m (or A$3700 per unit) package to keep students safe from Covid-19. New South Wales ordered 19,000.
Our Ministry of Education's tender was more modest in scale.
Fowler said the MoE had ordered 1000 units of the Samsung Air Purifier AX90T7080WD/SA, which retails for around $999, and 4000 units of the Air Purifier AX60T5080WD/SA, which retails for around $799.
Samsung also makes larger, more powerful models.
But Fowler said the MoE received advice from an expert panel that it should set a performance requirement for a clean air delivery rate (CADR_ of at least 400 square metres per hour. The Samsung units ordered by the Ministry exceeded that with the smaller unit rated at 467sq m per hour and the larger unit at 701sq m per hour.
Wiggans said more powerful models would turn over the air in a classroom more times an hour, reducing risk (and naturally he favours the ActivePure models distributed by his companies, which he says create oxidising molecules to proactively remove pathogens).
"We all know that Omicron is a highly transmissible variant and with the vaccine roll-out for our 5- to–12-year-olds only starting, we feel the ministry should be taking the strongest possible measures to keep our kids and teachers safe," he says.
Questions have also been raised about the capability of hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filters - used by both the Samsung and ActivePure models - to grapple with Covid.
A hardware review team from the New York Times found that air purifiers with hepa filtration efficiently capture particles the size of - and far smaller than - the virus [SARS-CoV-2] that causes Covid-19.
"Many media outlets have incorrectly stated that hepa filters don't filter below 0.3 micron and therefore could not capture airborne coronaviruses. That's wrong."
It quotes a Nasa study that found hepa filters are actually most efficient - almost 100 per cent at 0.01 micron at capturing ultrafine particles below the 0.3-micron hepa test standard.
"The Samsung air cleaners we have ordered have a true hepa filter that removes up to 99.97 per cent of 0.3 micron, ultra-fine particles," Fowler told the Herald.
What was the contract worth?
The Government is not saying.
Swarbrick asked why information pertaining to the tender was redacted from the "Education Report: School ventilation approach under Covid-19" report.
Hipkins replied, "Releasing this would prejudice the Ministry of Education's ability to gain best value for money."