Critical workers who are close Covid contacts will soon be able to show proof of a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) to return to work, after outbreaks of Omicron crippled supply chains around the world.
Jacinda Ardern said the approach would mean critical workers who were identified as close contacts would be able to show proof of a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) to return to work during their required period of isolation.
This would include supermarket and health workforces.
“This will minimise disruption to critical infrastructure and supply chains, helping to keep New Zealand going,” the Prime Minister said.
Ardern said more detail about return-to-work testing, including when it would come into force, would be revealed on Wednesday.
It comes as large outbreaks of the variant around the world saw supply chains crippled, leaving shelves at Australian supermarkets empty.
Ardern acknowledged the approach to send the employees back to work after a RAT test "does come with some risk".
"That’s why we’re being quite targeted in who we’re using that option for."
She said advice would be given to critical workplaces to help protect their employees under the scheme.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said critical workers who planned to use RATs to go back to work would have to be free of Covid-19 symptoms.
Current isolation rules required people who test positive for Omicron to isolate for 14 days, and their household contacts to isolate up to a further 10 days on top of that. Meanwhile, close contacts of cases were required to isolate for 10 days.
She said the country had 4.6 million RATs already in the country, with a confirmed delivery of an additional 14.6 million over the next five weeks.
Work was underway to get another 22m over the same period.
It came as the Government announced that while the Omicron outbreak was still in initial stages, PCR tests would continue to be the mainstay.
“For now, PCR tests are best,” Ardern said, although wider RAT use was on the way as a supplementary method.
ACT leader David Seymour accused the Government of "tightly rationing" RATs because it was "not ready".
"If you want a rapid antigen test, you have to be a ‘critical worker,’ otherwise you have to stay in isolation for 14 days.
"All over the world, people can go to their supermarket or pharmacy and buy a test to monitor their own health," he said.
Ardern said, globally, demand for RATs was high, meaning it was a "very competitive space".
Australia had been facing a shortage of RATs since Christmas. However, ABC reported there were some signs this was easing.
RATs tend to be less sensitive than the PCR method when detecting Covid-19 cases. Sensitivity describes the proportion of people with the virus who return a positive result.
That lack of sensitivity is particularly apparent when testing people who are asymptomatic or those who are either very early in or towards the end of their infectious period, when they have less of the virus in their bodies. That’s because rapid antigen testing looks for the protein of the Covid-19 virus, rather than its RNA genome.
What antigen testing lacks in sensitivity, however, it makes up for in speed. Because the process doesn’t require samples to be sent to a lab, it can be done in as little as 15 minutes.