Workers at the border and in quarantine facilities will be able to get daily saliva tests as well as their weekly regular tests – but it will not be mandatory, despite concerns about new, fast-spreading variants of Covid-19.
Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said the saliva tests would be offered to staff at the Jet Park Quarantine facility in Auckland from Monday, January 25, and then rolled out to other Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities in Wellington and Christchurch.
"This new precautionary measure is in response to higher rates of infection overseas and the more transmissible variants of Covid-19, and is the latest in a series of added protection measures at the border," Chris Hipkins said.
Hipkins said the saliva tests had a lower sensitivity than the nasopharyngeal swab test, so would not replace the usual testing regime which would remain in place.
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However, the tests were less invasive and could help pick up cases sooner.
"The [workers] are among the most tested people in the country and perform a critical role in keeping Covid-19 out of New Zealand communities.
A report into the Covid-19 testing and surveillance strategy by Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche had recommended more widespread use of the saliva testing because it was less invasive than nasal swabs and could boost public willingness to be tested.
However, the Ministry of Health has so far held back because the testing is less accurate than the nasal swabbing.
Next week, an ESR study will begin to saliva test Air NZ staff along with their swab tests to compare the results.
Hipkins said the effectiveness of saliva testing continued to evolve and the Ministry of Health was monitoring it. It would report to him with its findings on other forms of testing in early March.
The surge in fast-spreading variants of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom and South Africa has already pushed the Government into mandating pre-departure Covid-19 tests for any travellers coming to New Zealand.