Auditor-General slams saliva testing procurement

It is deeply troubling that the Auditor-General has identified “serious concerns” about aspects of the Government’s saliva testing procurement process this year and the need for an urgent independent inquiry has never been greater, says National’s COVID-19 Spokesperson Chris Bishop.

“As I have said for months, the roll-out of saliva testing in New Zealand has been shambolic. It was recommended as an urgent priority by the Roche/Simpson report in September 2020 but has been beset by delays and scandals ever since the Government made the belated decision to roll-out saliva testing mid-way through this year.”

The Auditor-General’s letter regarding the eventual decision to award a saliva testing contract to APHG is deeply critical of various aspects of the process to award a contract worth more than $50 million to APHG. In particular:

  • There was no procurement plan for the procurement;
  • The Ministry did not appoint an independent probity auditor for the procurement;
  • Four out of the five members of the panel for the procurement had indicated that their knowledge or roles might give rise to perceived conflicts of interest, including, incredibly, past and current employment relationships with staff from potential respondents or associated laboratories!
  • The steps taken by the Ministry were not enough to mitigate the perception or actual risk that the tender process is not impartial or influenced by the conflicts
  • Overall, because of the way conflicts of interest were managed, the Ministry left itself open to a perception of bias.

“It is simply incredible that the Ministry thought it was acceptable to have people on the panel assessing the bids who had “regular professional contact with staff/organisations that might be responding to, or affiliated with, tenders, including laboratories currently providing Covid-19 testing services; and “extensive experience reviewing different saliva testing methods and with their own opinion about different approaches.

“Sadly the deeply critical letter today is not unexpected. The Ministry of Health spent much of the first half of this year casting doubt on the accuracy of saliva tests in comparison to nasal PCR tests, even though an existing private provider, Rako Science, had its test diagnostically validated by New Zealand laboratories and Associate Professor Janet Pitman, of Victoria University, said Rako’s test ‘is similar, if not better, than the nasal swab test’. Rako’s attempts to contract with the Ministry for saliva testing have been rebuffed – even while people waited 10-12 hours for nasal PCR tests in Auckland at the start of this outbreak.

“It is now imperative that a full and independent inquiry be held into what has happened with saliva testing in New Zealand. While today’s report deals with the procurement process, there are wider, unanswered questions around saliva testing in New Zealand.”

Mr Bishop says the inquiry should cover the following:

  • Why New Zealand has been slow in adopting saliva testing including why the recommendation from the Roche/Simpson report in September 2020 was effectively ignored;
  • The science capability of the Ministry in assessing saliva testing;
  • The appropriateness of the procurement process around the awarding of the nationwide contact to APHG;
  • The diagnostic validation of saliva tests in New Zealand;
  • The accreditation process for labs running saliva tests in New Zealand; including whether and why the Ministry of Health altered the standards used by IANZ for accreditation.