Farmer reluctance to testing

A federated Farmers president is not surprised to hear some in the industry are asking staff to avoid getting Covid-19 tests, saying many simply feel they cannot afford to be out of action.

It comes as the Government works on a policy to keep farmers working, with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor not ruling out the possibility of vaccinated, asymptomatic staff who tested positive continuing working within their bubbles.

Otago and Southland farmers, spoken to on the agreement they would not be named, admitted they knew farmers who had asked staff to avoid being tested if they were symptomatic for Covid-19.

A Southland sheep and beef farmer said he vowed to never get tested for Covid-19 because of the impact testing positive would have on his farm.

If no-one knew a farm worker officially had Covid-19 and they stayed home until they felt better, then the other staff could continue the farm operation as normal.

"Farmers are not wanting to break the rules but they don’t want their whole operation shut down.

"You are much better not knowing — ignorance is bliss."

He knew a Southern dairy farmer who had given their workers the same ultimatum several weeks ago.

He believed keeping infections a secret would be "very widespread".

An Otago sheep and beef farmer said many farmers had stopped contact-tracing due to the fear they visited somewhere which had been exposed to the virus and they would need to isolate and be unable to do farm work.

Federated Farmers Southland president Chris Dillon said he believed farmers would avoid being tested as the virus spread.

Farmers could not afford to be out of action for very long and most farmers were isolated by nature as well as vaccinated, he said.

Some were deliberately staying home to minimise the risk of catching the virus and having to take time off during harvest season.

There were even some parents who would be homeschooling their children so they could not bring Covid home, Mr Dillon said.

There was no simple solution to the problem.

When asked how the Government could support farmers and discourage people from avoiding getting tested, Mr Dillon said there was little that could be done as farmers had lost trust in the Government.

On Tuesday, the Government announced $400,000 to go to farming support groups for Omicron contingency planning, but that was nothing more than a "token gesture".

What the agricultural sector needed was workers, not money, he said.

Otago president Mark Patterson said what would really make a difference was if the Government could clarify what access farmers had to rapid antigen tests (Rats).

Some big farms employed a significant number of staff and Rats would go a long way to identifying infections early to keep staff working.

Farmers had to take care of the health of their staff and Federated Farmers encouraged them to follow the public health advice given.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor told RNZ farmers who were vaccinated, asymptomatic and working in a bubble might be able to continue working.

"These are the things we’re trying to work through at the moment and I’m sure we’ll get to a point where we can manage these issues in a sensible way.

"Hopefully, we can get to a point where there’s a clear policy."

The Government was working through the issue of getting Rats for farmers, but it was important not to rush into creating a policy that could quickly become redundant, he said.

Act New Zealand leader David Seymour said the Government’s "unworkable" isolation rules created an incentive for people not to get tested.

The isolation length for a confirmed case was 14 days, with an additional 72 hours symptom-free.

Others in the household would have to stay for up to 10 more days and could end up isolating for a total of 24 days.

"People who cannot afford that have a strong incentive not to get tested, defeating the purpose of the rules."

DairyNZ farm performance general manager Sharon Morrell said the vast majority of farmers were following Covid-19 guidance.

Some dairy farmers were already separating their teams into milking shifts to prepare for Omicron.


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