Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Act says the Government did not test contact tracing system, the Government says Act has its definition wrong

The Act Party is accusing the Government of not having properly tested its contact tracing system prior to the latest outbreak, leading to delays which potentially fuelled the spread of the outbreak.

The error is especially egregious because Sir Brian Roche’s review of the February outbreak in Auckland specifically recommended the Government regularly “stress test” its contact tracing ability to ensure it can withstand an outbreak.

Written Parliamentary Questions from Act leader David Seymour have revealed the Government has not done any stress testing of the contact tracing system as this might conventionally be understood – testing the system to see how many hypothetical contacts could be traced in a limited time.

Instead, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government had to be repeatedly paused on this.

“Planning for a comprehensive stress test was completed in 2020, but the rollout was paused while teams dealt with the Auckland August 2020 outbreak.

“In March 2021, a significant amount of work was started on a system update to the National Contact Tracing Solution (NCTS) and the scenario testing was rescheduled to take place in mid-2021. This was again deferred to allow the operational teams to manage the contact tracing activity associated with quarantine-free travel, including the Wellington traveller case in June 2021,” he said.

What had been done instead was “scenario testing tabletop exercises”.

The Ministry of Health said that these “scenario testing tabletop exercises” were also stress tests.

“Table-top exercises are based on a range of similar real-life events, combined to be a ‘worst-case’ scenario. For example, a case that works in an aged care facility, that has family members who have a large amount of contacts due to work and school settings,” said a Health spokesperson.

These tests began in December 2020 and have continued this year.

But Seymour said scenario testing and stress testing are two different things.

“One is qualitative and the other is quantitative,” Seymour said.

“The question is did they quantitatively test the pressure the system would be under in a Delta environment?” Seymour said.

Roche’s report on the February outbreak in Auckland recommended that “scenario planning” as well as “stress testing” be conducted.

But Roche said he was happy with the scenario testing the Government had been doing, saying the ministry had met the requirement.

“They have met it,” Roche said.

“The question is have they done enough to prepare for Delta,” Roche said.

“The contact tracing has surged significantly but could it have been better – but personally I think they did really well,” he said.

The Government responded to that recommendation, saying that the system was stress-tested by the Covid outbreaks themselves.

The contact tracing system has come under considerable pressure during the current outbreak, with the Government at one point hiring 800 extra contact tracers to help with the additional work.

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