Publication date: 14 June 2022
Delays in PCR testing in the early stage of the COVID-19 Omicron outbreak has been the subject of significant public interest with the Ministry of the Health receiving several requests under the Official Information Act 1982 for emails and documents related to this issue.
By way of background, the Ministry has a process for getting information about PCR testing capacity from laboratories. We ask labs to fill out a survey once a week on Wednesday. The survey includes questions on their current baseline capacity without pooling, their surge capacity with pooling, and capacity based on reagents in hand/available. We also check these during the lab network teleconferences for any concerns or issues regarding service delivery, which are held once per week.
Pre omicron (during the elimination phase), laboratories frequently pool samples to enable them to process large numbers of predominantly negative COVID-19 tests. To pool samples, laboratories take several individual samples and combine them with several other samples together (typically between 5 to 10 at a time) into one tube. Then they do the PCR reaction on the pooled sample. If the pool is positive, they run each sample individual that is in that pool to find which one was positive.
The spike in positive cases to nearly 20,000 per day across the country in the early stage of the COVID-19 Omicron outbreak prevented labs from using pooling within two days. At the same time, lab capacity was impacted by other factors, including staffing capacity, staff testing positive, and lab vacancies. Unpooled testing has allowed lab capacity to increase processing to about 30,000 PCR tests per day.
Further information about PCR testing capacity is available in the Director-General’s media update from 1 March 2022.
Given the level of interest and to provide greater public transparency, the Ministry has decided to proactively publish key documents relating to PCR testing, including reviews it commissioned. It is important to note that this proactive release of emails and their associated documents is not intended to be exhaustive, rather, they focus on providing responses to the types of questions that were received in Official Information Act requests on PCR testing.
Please note some information has been withheld under the following sections of the OIA:
- Section 9(2)(a) – to protect personal privacy
- Section 9(2)(b)(ii) - where its release would likely unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the person who supplied the information
- Section 9(2)(g)(i) - to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by or between or to Ministers and officers and employees of any public service agency.