The government moved unannounced last Friday to “second” all available supplies of covid-19 rapid antigen tests, a national supplier of rapid antigen tests (RATs) is telling customers.
Replacement supplies are “approximately three to four weeks” away for RATs produced by multi-national supplier Roche from its Korean manufacturing facility, says local supplier InScience in a notification on its website.
It had “considerable stock coming into our store from this shipment, due soon" and is "accepting orders for dispatch to you in February”.
It appears not all privately held stocks of RATs are being commandeered. Air NZ, for example, continues to have supplies.
However, there has been no official government notification that it has begun using emergency powers rushed into law last year that allow it to commandeer essential medical supplies to respond to the pandemic.
It was the National party's covid-19 response spokesman, Chris Bishop, who blew the whistle first in a statement late last night.
The requisitioning is understood to have affected supplies coming from the largest supplier to the New Zealand market – Australian-headquartered Ebos.
However, an Ebos spokesman in Melbourne was not immediately able to confirm the status of its RAT stocks in NZ.
Another supplier, Bio-strategy, is also unable to supply customers after having its supplies commandeered.
BusinessDesk has approached the Ministry of Health for comment ahead of a media briefing at 2pm this afternoon from the associate health minister, Ayesha Verrall, on contact tracing, testing and isolation protocols during the impending omicron variant outbreak.
Food industry angst
The requisitioning follows a push late last year by large-scale NZ businesses that require workforces on-site to force the government to allow the use of RATs.
That saw the government rush a pilot programme into existence before establishing an import permissions system in December, which allowed firms to privately import RATs from a small list of test suppliers that have been approved so far by the ministry of health.
BusinessDesk has been told at least five food producer members of the NZ Food and Grocery Council are affected, prompting a furious reaction from the council’s executive director, Katherine Rich.
“These tests are only in the country already because some companies have done the right thing," she said. "Orders were due with the food industry yesterday and those orders were only cancelled yesterday.
“The upshot is that our members don’t have their kit.”
With many employers using RATs to reassure their workforces that it was safe to come to work, the sudden removal of supplies is creating major communications problems with staff.
"When will these kits be distributed?" she asked, saying it looked as if the ministry of health was "artificially stitching itself into the supply chain".
Bishop accused the government of “seizing rapid tests from the private sector to try and hide their incompetence from not ordering enough of them sooner”.
“The government banned the importation of rapid antigen testing for most of 2021, only relenting in the final quarter and allowing selected companies to bring in a small number," he said.
"Having banned their use, the government is now scrambling to get enough rapid tests for its own uses.
“The government has no one to blame but itself.”
Act leader David Seymour described the move as a “confiscation”.
InScience tells customers it only has “stocks of covid RAT product that we had in our stores as of Friday, Jan 14, which we are supplying on allocation to those workplaces that need it”.
“We are allocating and rationing RAT test product based on need and as best we can. Please bear with us while we work with existing orders and attempt to satisfy the needs of account holders and other urgent requirements for any orders placed after today.
“We are accepting forward orders and will commit product to your confirmed orders from the shipment due in NZ in February.”
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said previously there are some 4.6 million RATs in the country with "tens of millions" on order, although this appears to refer to an order for 20 million tests recently announced by covid response minister Chris Hipkins.