On Friday in a conference call to discuss a self-isolation programme that I had sent to MBIE two weeks ago, I was stunned by Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall's opening line that only the Government or a Government-approved agency could communicate anything to do with the proposal from here on, and that "Sir Ian" was to refrain from writing "bad faith" articles for the Herald.
Given that everyone else in the meeting was either a government official or already part of a government group, it was clear these pre-meeting conditions were aimed solely at me.
I accept totally the concept of Chatham House rules when it comes to meetings such as this. The idea that I would not have honoured that most basic of principles is demeaning and something I take extremely seriously.
It was for that reason I left the meeting before it began.
I have finally realised that this is not a Government that wishes to consult transparently and openly or even make any concessions that it has made mistakes over the past two years. It is not one that seriously wants the input of people who are offering to help them from off the bench and they have made it very clear now that any advice offered will be conditional upon them controlling the messaging.
When I began these columns in September 2021, I did so with a great deal of excitement and optimism. I had seen first-hand a number of advances in technology that I felt could help hasten the opening of our borders, start bringing our stranded Kiwis home and get business travellers back out into the global marketplace that was beginning to move on without them.
The offer I made to bring people off the bench to help get our borders open, whilst keeping our people in Aotearoa safe was genuine and I fully expected that those offers would at least be considered given the impact that Covid was having on us.
In November, with the help of many of those people off the bench, I funded my own self-isolation trial to LA to demonstrate how we could start bringing people home safely and get businesses operating again in the international marketplace. The independent review that we commissioned from Ernst & Young concluded that the trial met and exceeded all the Covid protocols set by the Government and that the trial was repeatable.
Ironically, even though I self-funded the trial and stayed in accommodation provided to me for free, I got a bill from MBIE for taking part in the trial. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the first bill was incorrect. Or that I am still waiting for the results of the two saliva tests they paid a Canadian company $60 million to deliver when the three New Zealand Rako Science ones I took delivered their results on the same day I took them.
At the core of our trial was what the experts I spoke with felt was the most critical step to protect our borders – start that protection at the place of departure with PCR tests that were taken less than three hours before boarding the plane. At the time the requirement was for a 72-hour window – three days. Recently that was reduced to 48 hours, still two days to catch the most infectious variant of Covid yet.
The second key change we made to the Government's border control was that I would use a PCR test that gave me a result within one hour of landing in Auckland. I have asked this a number of times, but how many of the hundreds of Omicron cases currently in MIQ would have been detected if they had gone through the same process I had done back in November.
Timely, accurate testing was the basis of the proposal I presented two weeks ago following a meeting with officials from the MOH, MBIE and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. The proposal was based on a new test we had found called Lucira. It is a molecular test, trialled and approved by countries such as Israel, Taiwan, Singapore and the US. It is approved by the FDA as the equivalent of the nasopharyngeal test the Government uses, and it differs from the rapid antigen tests in that it uses a process that magnifies the virus to give a much higher degree of accuracy. It finds the virus earlier, with more accuracy and it does it in 30 minutes.
The proposal I put before MBIE two weeks ago did not for one moment envisage the news announced by the Prime Minister this week that our borders would reopen on February 27 and that the rapid antigen test that had been banned for the past two years had now miraculously become our first line of defence. And that defence was going to be required by the end of this month. At the time of announcing this, our RAT supplies were down to 4.3 million and Chinese New Year had just started, closing the factory that had just taken an order for 65 million tests from the Government.
This knee-jerk response to the final realisation that MIQ was simply incapable of dealing with the potential inflow of travellers made my earlier proposal redundant. The plan needed to be revised at speed, so overnight I worked with the team from Lucira in the US, with another conference call, so that I could present the revised plan at the meeting with Verrall on Friday morning.
That of course did not happen so here it is for anyone else who thinks the Government might listen to them, without the conditions that were placed on me.
The key to the original proposal was to catch Covid before it got here and then to test for it again on landing. To achieve that we needed a test that could do that reliably and in a time frame that was as close to boarding as possible. Lucira gives that result in 30 minutes.
The announcement that the borders would be opening in a matter of weeks has changed that – so this is the revised plan where the focus will be on entry into New Zealand.
1: Drop the idea that rapid antigen tests can be used as our first line of defence.
2: Commit to Lucira based on the evidence that has been presented to you already. Not to mention the technical status of the countries now using it.
3: Establish a testing venue at the airport where testing can be conducted as soon as travellers have cleared Customs and Immigration. To prevent disruption at the airport, look for a large area close by to use as a testing facility. Now that you are phasing our MIQ, you could possibly use the hotels closest to the airport for this. It shouldn't be needed for more than an hour each time.
4: Although this test can be easily self-administered, bring in staff who have been trained on the nasopharyngeal testing to give assistance where needed. It's identical except the swab does not have to go so far up your nose that it tickles your brain. And of course, you don't have to wait three days for a result.
5: While travellers are waiting for their 30-minute results, staff will give them a kit with two more Lucira kits for use in self-isolation and make sure they are happy with how to use them. Travellers should be given the option of requesting people to come and administer them if they are uncomfortable with the process. This has been trialled successfully in the US so there is a model to follow.
6: Anyone testing positive will be moved directly to MIQ.
7: As a passing note to add to the discussion – the new version of Lucira to be released in April will also detect influenza A and B. We haven't had those for almost two years – when they hit this winter, we will have a whole new level of pressure placed on our hospital system.
There will obviously be a cost involved but given the cost of the current MIQ it will only be a fraction of what it was – and the question we really need to ask is; what price do we place on opening our borders as safely as possible?
I imagine this process may only be needed for a limited time but having it in place will mean that, should we ever need it again, it will be able to be switched on at a moment's notice.
I have finally come to the realisation that this Government, the one I voted for, has already written its agenda, the most important part of which seems to be to manage the entire discussion around Covid to ensure that the focus never turns to how things could have been done better, or the role that business could play in the Covid response if we were asked to be part of the team.
This week, as I spent some long-overdue time with one of my mokopuna, I was reminded that it is our tamariki who will eventually have to face the real cost of the single-focused, fear-driven response we have had. Now that is something worth fighting for.
In response so Sir Ian's column, a statement provided by Ayesha Verrall said:
"On Friday I met with Sir Ian Taylor and Air New Zealand to discuss pre-departure testing.
"As is routine with commercially sensitive discussions, and reflecting the fact that future Government decisions may need to be made, it was agreed by all parties, other than Sir Ian that confidentiality would need to be observed.
"I made it clear to Sir Ian that within those bounds he was free to continue to publicly question and criticise the Government.
"Our work with Air New Zealand on this matter is ongoing."
In a statement, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment also addressed Sir Ian Taylor's trial bill:
"We can confirm that Sir Ian Taylor was invoiced on the 23rd of December.
"He was previously invoiced a different cost, which was credited due to the isolation period requirements. This recalculation led to the current invoice mentioned above."
• Ian Taylor is the founder and managing director of Animation Research. He was named the 2019 New Zealand Innovator of the Year and in 2020 was awarded the Deloitte Top 200 Visionary Leader.