Building Better Borders

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
19 February, 2021

Daily testing for everyone involved in the border system was always ideal, though it took rather some time for the government to come around to that view.

It looks like daily Covid testing will soon be part of the border regimen. It will substantially reduce risk, and that can enable more Kiwis to come home.

In May last year, daily testing would have been impossible. The capacity was not yet there. And even if daily swab tests were possible, test fatigue would quickly set in. It would be surprising if test fatigue were not setting in at the ports already, even though swab testing there is far from daily.

By August, the University of Illinois had started on-campus testing using the saliva PCR test it had developed to provide accurate and fast results at low cost. From that point on, it was feasible to adopt the system here.

This week, Newsroom reported that Rako Science has been providing saliva-based PCR testing using the Illinois protocol for private firms.

With the system up and running, it will be impossible for the Ministry of Health to pretend it does not exist. The government cannot fob it off with a usual list of reasons that things that work abroad cannot be done in New Zealand.

When something is already being done, it is harder to pretend it is impossible. It is possible to add saliva PCR testing for every single person in the border system, and for it quickly to scale up to daily testing.

Once that is in place, things get interesting.

Daily testing in MIQ makes transmission within MIQ far less likely. Infected people quickly shuttled to Jet Park are far less likely to infect others. Hotels were never designed as MIQ facilities. But they are much less risky if cases are caught before people become infectious.

If the swab tests prove redundant once daily saliva testing is in place, one bottleneck in the MIQ system will ease. The system strains for want of nurses at the government’s going pay rates. But saliva collection does not require nurses.

All of it makes it easier, and safer, to scale up capacity in the MIQ system.

The mass vaccination that can restore normal international travel is still at least half a year away.

Letting more Kiwis come home sooner matters.

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