The Ministry of Health has asked suppliers of rapid antigen tests to ‘prioritize its orders’ over those of private companies after just 2% of the ministry’s orders for January and February from a ‘confirmed’ supplier delivered late January of this year.
This is despite the fact that the Covid-19 minister told parliament that the department had not asked for tests intended for private companies and was only looking to anticipate the delivery of the government’s own stocks. The ministry said at the time that it had ordered them to be given priority.
In the event, the test providers acknowledged that although they had told their own customers that the government wanted their orders to be prioritized, the tests were delivered in the order in which they were purchased: the government first of all.
In late January, companies began reporting that RAT orders had been canceled after the government commandeered stocks. Leaked emails from companies supplying two RAT brands in New Zealand also said the government had taken orders, although the companies that sent the emails later retracted them.
In January, when asked about the missing tests, Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield told a press conference that they were not being requisitioned, but “consolidated”.
Later that day, on Heather du Plessis-Allan’s Newstalk ZB Drive, Bloomfield explained what he meant by “consolidated”: “The conversations we’ve had with suppliers are as if they had orders with New Zealand-based companies, we expect them to prioritize government orders first.”
Weeks later, during parliamentary question time, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins gave a different definition of “consolidated”.
“From the conversation I had with Dr Bloomfield, I understood he was referring to the consolidation of government orders,” Hipkins said, implying that no private orders had been taken. .
Emails released by the department to the Herald under the Official Information Act show it has asked suppliers to prioritize public and private orders to the department. They also show that, in the case of one test manufacturer, the ministry requested that the tests be supplied “exclusively” to the government, while it built up its stocks.
The department told the Herald that the emails simply stated that “all RAT orders were fulfilled in the order in which they were placed.”
But National Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said the emails show officials went “into panic mode in early January” when they realized “they had done little planning for Omicron. and had not ordered enough rapid tests”.
Government concerns grow over missing tests
As of January 11, the ministry planned to prioritize its stock over other orders.
In an email to government agencies, he said “where suppliers need to make calls about orders they will fulfill from available stock and look to us for advice, the Department of Health will play the role to prioritize RAT orders for government agencies”.
On January 14, Frank Schulpen, the national supply chain operations manager, wrote to Abbott, a test maker, saying the Covid-19 Minister and the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department, overseeing the response wider Covid, worried about the state of testing. ordered by the government.
“Having to advise that we are still waiting for Abbott to confirm delivery schedules are starting to run out,” Schulpen said.
“[P]make it clear to your superiors that the highest level of the New Zealand government is now asking for firm delivery schedules to enable the execution of their management plans for Omicron,” Schulpen warned.
Emails showed the government wanted RATs to be “exclusively” provided to the ministry.
As of late January, the ministry was still struggling to get information on where its tests were and how many people would arrive in the country on time.
Early on January 22, two ministry staffers sent exorbitant emails to Abbott warning it that they only had information on 5% of their January and February orders and confirmed delivery of only 2% of orders.
Kelvin Watson emailed Abbott saying he couldn’t “express the level of disappointment here”.
“I appreciate you working hard and relying on others for answers, but the information below represents information on less than 5% of our orders for the January/February period and confirmed deliveries for less than 2% of these orders”,
Watson said he had told ‘the chief health officer and the prime minister’ he could confirm delivery schedules for New Zealand stock the previous day – unfortunately that was not the case, and no schedule delivery could not be confirmed.
Watson said Bloomfield would expect an “intensified conversation” with Abbott about the missing tests and suggested going “to the next level… someone called Jeff in the US?”
He was referring to Jeff Haas, Vice President, Specialty Products and Managed Healthcare. Bloomfield was finally able to email him.
Schulpen joined his indignation to that of Watson.
On the same day, he wrote to Abbott saying he was ‘concerned’ that the amounts of testing underway meant Abbott would only ‘fill previous orders placed in November and the first week of December’ .
He added that he was “really, really disappointed that with millions of capacity every week…that’s all we have on the farm”.
“By Monday, I hope this situation will be corrected and that Abbott, as the global supplier in whom the New Zealand government has placed its trust, will deliver what is required.”
Bloomfield itself stepped in, emailing Haas saying “we are having difficulty getting information from Abbott regarding the fulfillment of these orders, quantities allocated to New Zealand and confirmation of the production schedule. and delivery”.
Bloomfield said the information it was able to obtain fell “well below our expectations” and put “our public health response at risk”.
“I would like to urgently arrange a conversation with you within the next 24 hours to discuss these issues and understand what is in place to fulfill these orders for New Zealand,” Bloomfield wrote. A conversation was scheduled, but it is unclear what was said.
Over the next few days, the ministry requested that its orders be prioritized.
The Herald leaked two emails to purchasers of the Roche and Abbott tests, which told customers that the suppliers were “directed” to supply “only” ministry orders, not orders from private companies.
Both emails have been taken down by the companies that sent them. The confusion was understandable, however, as the department had to remind both Roche and Abbott that the order to prioritize government orders was a “request” and not a “legislative requirement” to pass the tests.
In the case of the retracted Abbott email, the ministry even worked out a statement with Abbott that confirmed what its customers had been told: that the ministry would have exclusive rights to Abbott testing for a period of time. .
But the confusion also existed at Roche.
An email to Roche in February reminded the company that “the ministry’s request to prioritize its orders was just that, a request, not based on a legislative requirement.”
The ministry added that it “has the legislative authority to do so”, but “we have not enacted it for the provision of RATs”.
Bishop said the line showed that “the ministry… was leaning on the various vendors and making sure the government got the tests before anyone else.”
The ministry has requested that all tests entering New Zealand be provided exclusively to the government.
On January 24, Abbott’s regional general manager for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Mark Volling, wrote to the department seeking advice on what to tell its customers about the department’s decision to pass the tests first.
Volling wrote: “Please note that, in accordance with instructions provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Health, we…will supply all Abbott Panbio Rapid Antigen Tests…imported into New Zealand exclusively to the Ministry of Health for distribution. and their use in the short term until supply can catch up with demand”.
The ministry suggested replacing the word “guidance” with “expectation”, even though it was “lax” on the wording used.
After the news broke that the tests promised to the companies were missing and the companies were told that their tests had been carried out by the ministry, officials organized an urgent review of where the tests were.
It revealed that the suppliers gave the ministry tests first, but the suppliers said it was because the ministry placed the first orders (it was previously illegal to import RATs into the country).
Bishop said the emails showed “a sordid and shameful episode of a government being taken aback by its own incompetence”.