Reducing border risk

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
4 June, 2021

The New Zealand government’s approach to border management, contrary to popular belief, is not terrified of risk.

It is far worse than that.

The approach instead is terrified of change. And that does not always reduce risk.

A system terrified of risk would take every reasonable effort, and maybe also some unreasonable efforts, to avoid Covid outbreaks. Until vaccines are broadly available, err on that side.

This week, Business Desk’s Pattrick Smellie asked why regular saliva testing is not in place at the border.

Rako Science’s FDA-approved PCR saliva test has been available here since January. From staff to MIQ visitors, every person in the border system could have been having daily or near-daily saliva testing.

It provides results in hours rather than days.

And it isn’t a pipe dream still on a drawing board. Rako has successfully been testing people in New Zealand since January. Rako’s results have been validated by work at Victoria University of Wellington.

And the test will soon be available at pharmacies too.

Rapid saliva testing substantially reduces risk. Daily testing for all MIQ visitors and staff would quickly show whether nasal swab tests were still needed or were redundant. A government terrified of risk would not hesitate.

Instead, the government contracted a limited amount of saliva testing for some border workers from an excellent company whose system is not yet running. The testing system was not disclosed in the government’s press release.

Smellie’s proposed uncharitable explanation for what is going on is identical to the conclusion I reached. The Ministry of Health “simply can’t hack dealing with anyone who threatens to show them up.”

This is not a system scared of risk.

This is status-quo bias, and patch protection, so severe that it puts all of us at risk.

The border could be much safer, but the Ministry of Health says no. And the border needs to be able to change.

New Zealand needs nimble systems able to keep up with changes like mass vaccination abroad. MIQ facilities closed after the Australia bubble could be reopened for vaccinated, tested travellers from places with low covid rates.

Daily saliva testing could help determine how long a stay in MIQ was necessary for those visitors.

More people would be able to travel at lower risk. Families could reunite; critical business travel could resume.

It requires a risk-sensitive system. Not our current sclerotic one.

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