Anybody with symptoms similar to Covid-19 can expect to be tested from now on in a bid to dramatically boost Covid-19 testing to assess just how widespread the virus is in New Zealand.
Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield has now advised clinicians to test anybody with upper respiratory symptoms of Covid-19 rather than focusing mainly on those with a travel history or with close contact to a traveller or a Covid-19 case.
The change to the instructions was made yesterday after the Covid-19 technical advisory committee decided much more testing was needed - with the backing of the PM.
So far, 21,384 people have been tested and there are 647 cases of Covid-19. Only about 2 per cent are believed to be community transmission.
New Zealand can do 3500 tests a day but the average test rate was about half of that.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the scale of testing was not enough to be able to draw any conclusions about the true extent of community transmission.
"Not only is it too soon to draw conclusions about New Zealand's position as we tackle this global pandemic, we also don't believe we have enough testing to tell us what we need to know.
"The more we test, the more it tells us how far our community transmission is, and where it is."
The testing has so far revealed 14 "clusters" of people who were at a single event or venue.
Ardern said it was possible the virus had spread more widely around those communities but that would not be detected unless more widespread testing was done.
"I do expect the testing to grow, and it needs to grow."
Bloomfield also said he believed the proportion of community transmission cases was likely to grow as more testing was done.
The move to boost testing comes two weeks after the World Health Organisation issued a "test, test, test" call to countries battling with the virus. Extensive testing and containment of sick people had had some effect in countries such as South Korea.
Ardern defended the delay before heeding that call, saying New Zealand had moved into lockdown at a very early stage and she did not believe New Zealand was the target of the call.
Earlier, the committee of MPs scrutinising the Government response had heard from Otago University Professor and epidemiologist Sir David Skegg, who pushed for a much broader testing regime and stricter quarantine rules.
Skegg said if very aggressive action was taken now, New Zealand had a better chance of all but eliminating the virus.
The Government had released its modelling just ahead of that meeting – Bloomfield said that data showed a "sobering picture" of what could happen. "There was a stark choice between acting decisively, going early and going hard. The alternative was unacceptable."
On Wednesday that committee, chaired by National Party leader Simon Bridges, will focus on the economic response – hearing from Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Treasury secretary Caralee McLiesh.
The Government will also announce a new infrastructure group to try to identify projects that will be quick to get going to help boost the economy as New Zealand looks to recovery – something that will take years.
PM urges against pre-Easter panic shopping
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has asked people not to flock to the supermarkets in a pre-Easter rush, saying the decision to open supermarkets on Easter Sunday was aimed at preventing that.
Supermarkets will close on Easter Friday but open on Easter Sunday in a change to the usual laws because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
There had been calls for the supermarkets to remain open throughout, but Ardern said the Easter Friday closure would give many supermarket staff a day off and give supermarkets time to re-stock.
Opening on Easter Sunday recognised the need of people to access supermarkets at such a time and would help prevent yet another bout of panic buying.
She said the supermarkets had told her that no staff would be forced to work on the Easter Sunday, and they would try to only use staff who had volunteered for it.
Ardern admitted there had been different views on it in Cabinet. "I do want to acknowledge the religious significance of Easter Sunday for many New Zealanders."
She said dairies had always been allowed to open on the Easter holidays, and that would remain the case.
The First Union, which represents many supermarket workers, had called for supermarkets to be closed on both days, saying workers had reported they were exhausted after coping with panic buying and the extra rules during the lockdown.
The union had said that would have also given time to do a deep clean, and to complete the installation of safety barriers and markings.