Testing and returning to work

Managing workers who are COVID-19 cases, contacts or have symptoms

As part of New Zealand’s COVID response

  • anyone with symptoms should get a test
  • confirmed cases need to isolate for 7 days after their symptoms first occurred or they received their positive test result, whichever ends sooner
  • household contacts need to isolate at least until the confirmed case in their household has completed their 7 days of isolation as above
  • all household contacts must test on day 3 and day 7 or as soon as possible if they develop any symptoms
  • if a household contact tests positive, they become a confirmed case themselves and must isolate for 7 days as above 
  • a person who was previously a confirmed case who has finished their 7 days isolation is not considered a household contact for a period of 90 days after their first day of isolation even if someone else in their household becomes a confirmed case
  • other close contacts who are not household contacts do not need to isolate, but should monitor for symptoms.

If a household contact is vaccinated and asymptomatic, they may be able to continue to work if they:

Phases for response to Omicron(external link) — Ministry of Health

Managing the impact of COVID-19 cases at your business

Employers should not request employees who are required to isolate to come into work, unless they are eligible for the bubble of one or close contact exemption scheme.

If an employee is required to self-isolate because they are a household contact, or because they have registered a positive test result for COVID-19, they will be sent a text message from the Ministry of Health’s official 2328 or 2648 number. An employer should accept this text message as proof of an employee’s requirement to isolate.

If an employee has tested positive for COVID-19 they can return to the workplace after seven days, if they do not have symptoms. The employee is not required to test in order to leave isolation. However, an employer may put in place a policy requiring a negative test before the employee returns to the workplace – normal consultation requirements apply to introducing such a policy. These tests should be supplied by the employer, as they are not required for public health reasons. Employers should also note that some people may return a positive test even if they are no longer infectious.

For more information on normal consultation requirements, see:

Workplace change process outline(external link) — Employment New Zealand

If an employee is still sick 7 days after testing positive for COVID-19, and is unable to return to work, then they should access their normal sick leave entitlements – normal employment law applies in this situation. For more information on sick leave entitlements, see:

Sick leave entitlements(external link) —  Employment New Zealand

If an employee does not have symptoms 7 days after testing positive for COVID-19, but is unable to return to work, then the employee and their employer should discuss why the employee is unable to return to work – normal employment law applies to this discussion between the employee and employer.

More information on the funding of tests is available on the Ministry of Health’s website: 

Free testing for specific groups(external link) — Ministry of Health

Paying for COVID-19 testing(external link) — Ministry of Health

'Bubble of one' for workers who are contacts required to isolate

  • Any business or sole trader may have a worker who is a household contact on-site if this worker is not customer facing, and can maintain a ‘bubble of one’ while at work (including travel to and from work)
  • The requirements are that the worker:
    • is vaccinated
    • does not have any symptoms (asymptomatic)
    • is able to maintain an individual ‘bubble of one’ while at work (whether indoors or outdoors).
  • They are not required to use rapid antigen testing as part of this, nor are businesses required to register for 'bubble of one'.

At work, the following health measures must be in place. Businesses must have systems and processes in place to support these, and the worker must comply with them:

  • use a mask at all times (including wearing a mask before entry to the workplace, and changing as needed during the day)
  • comply with any infection prevention and control protocols at work
  • work in an indoor or outdoor space with no others present in that space (defined as an indoor space that has direct airflow with other spaces, or an outdoor space that is separated by at least two metres from other outdoor spaces)
  • travel solo or with a household member, to, from and around work or between jobs  
  • eat alone in a well-ventilated space, outdoors where possible
  • use a dedicated bathroom (if this is not possible, no others should be present in the bathroom while the worker is using it)
  • ensure that if symptoms develop at any stage, they follow the public advice for contacts with symptoms on the Ministry of Health website

When not at work, the worker must self-isolate as per general guidance, including testing where applicable.

Further information about the current requirements is available from the Ministry of Health.

Contact tracing for COVID-19(external link) — Ministry of Health

Close Contact Exemption Scheme

Critical workers who provide a health, MIQ, emergency service or are critical workers of a registered critical service provider who are vaccinated and asymptomatic are eligible for the Close Contact Exemption Scheme. If they become a household contact they may continue to work, as long as they return a negative rapid antigen test prior to each day/shift during the isolation period and follow specific health protocols.

Critical workers who are participating in the scheme will only be allowed to go to and from work or to collect their free Rapid Antigen Test kits from their closest collection site. They must otherwise stay in their place of self-isolation.

In most cases test kits will only be supplied as and when a worker(s) needs to use the scheme.

Refer to the guidance on the Ministry of Health website for the process for collecting and undertaking a Rapid Antigen Test, as part of the Close Contact Exemption Scheme.

Rapid antigen testing(external link) — Ministry of Health

At work, the following health measures must be in place. Businesses must have systems and processes in place to support these, and the worker must comply with them:

  • use a mask at all times (including wearing a mask before entry to the workplace, and changing as needed during the day)
  • anyone working in the same defined space must also wear a mask
  • comply with any infection prevention and control protocols at work
  • travel solo or with a household member, to, from and around work or between jobs .
  • eat alone in a well-ventilated space, outdoors where possible
  • use a dedicated bathroom (if this is not possible, no others should be present in the bathroom while the worker is using it)
  • ensure that if symptoms develop at any stage they follow the public advice for close contacts with symptoms at: Actions for contacts(external link) — Ministry of Health
  • continue participating in regular workplace surveillance testing if this is already in place.

When not at work, the worker must self-isolate, including testing where applicable.

Further information about the current requirements is available from the Ministry of Health.

Contact tracing for COVID-19(external link) — Ministry of Health

How do I register as a Critical Service?

Businesses and organisations can self-assess if they meet the criteria for being critical, and they are responsible for identifying critical workers that are required to maintain their operations. Please use the tool below to see if you qualify and then you can make a declaration by registering on the Close Contact Exemption Scheme Critical Services Register.

Please note: If you are registering for the Close Contact Exemption Scheme as a critical service, you do not need to connect your NZBN account to your Business Connect profile or to confirm NZBN Authority.

Register for Close Contact Exemption Scheme(external link) — Business Connect

Note that registration does not mean you will receive a supply of Rapid Antigen Tests from the Ministry of Health. For most services, test kits will only be supplied as and when a worker(s) need to use the scheme.

Step One. Critical sector – Basic human needs

Is your business or organisation involved in one of the following basic needs areas?

  • Food production and manufacturing
  • Distribution and sale of basic food (eg supermarkets, dairies, food banks)
  • Principal accommodation (eg providing people with their primary residence, such as their home, an apartment in a hotel, social/emergency housing, or a self-isolation location) 
  • Health services, including pharmacies and services provided for deceased persons

Close Contact Exemption Scheme registration portal(external link) — Business Connect

Key things for businesses to consider

Given the risk of transmission from a close contact (Rapid Antigen Tests are only about 80% accurate), businesses should be careful about the extent they use the scheme, as a COVID-19 case at work could result in greater absenteeism in the future.

Key things for businesses to consider are:

  • Does the worker need to be onsite (can they self-isolate and work remotely)?
  • Does the worker either have key skills or are they needed onsite in order to maintain minimum operations/capacity?
  • Can the worker operate in a bubble of one (there is less risk in operating as a bubble of one)?
  • What other appropriate steps can you take to limit the risk of transmission if a worker returns onsite?
  • Can you meet Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requirements to maintain a safe operating environment in the workplace while you have a household contact onsite?
  • Do you have business continuity plans in place if the worker who is a contact tests positive and needs to isolate, or if those working around them test positive?

What should a critical worker do if they are a contact and required to isolate?

When a critical worker at a critical service finds out they are a household contact of a COVID-19 case and are required to isolate, they will need to contact the business they work at to let them know. The business must then decide whether to use the scheme or not (considering the factors above).

For the worker to access Rapid Antigen Tests, the business should add the workers details to the confirmation email received from the Critical Services Register. This then acts as the authorisation from the business, for both collecting the RAT kit, and proof that the person has an exemption from isolation requirements. The worker can be sent a printed or digital copy of the completed email. The email includes:

  • confirmation that the business has declared themselves as a critical service and a unique Critical Services Register identifier for that business
  • a declaration from the business that the worker is critical
  • a declaration that the worker is vaccinated
  • an outline of the protocols the worker will need to follow to mitigate transmission risks (including, but not limited to the list above and any measures added by the business)

Along with the above documentation, the worker should also take the following to the collection point:

  • personal ID like a Driver’s Licence to prove who they are, and
  • the text message or NZ COVID Tracer app alert confirming they are a household contact and therefore eligible for a test.

The worker will then need to collect a Rapid Antigen Test kit from a Ministry of Health distribution hub.

If the worker is unable to collect the RATs themselves, someone can collect on their behalf. The nominated person must bring:

  • completed confirmation email received from the Critical Services Register
  • proof that the worker is a household contact (this can be a picture or screenshot of the NZ COVID Tracer app alert or text message confirming that the worker is a household contact)

RATs distribution(external link) — Healthpoint

If a business has a private supply of Rapid Antigen Tests, they can opt to supply a critical worker with these instead. The business should still write and send the worker the completed email, as this is evidence that the worker has an exemption from their self-isolation requirements for the purposes of working.

More information can be found on the Ministry of Health website on collecting and undertaking a Rapid Antigen test, how the worker should record the results, and other health protocols the worker must follow at work.

Rapid antigen testing(external link) — Ministry of Health

Workers also need to report their rapid antigen testing results to their workplace.

If you are a household contact but have not yet received a notification

If you are a household contact and do not have a notification or text message to use as evidence, then you may self-identify as a close contact by using the Location of Interest visit form, and typing ‘Critical’ into the Find a Location of Interest box.

Find the date corresponding with the date you were last exposed (ie the date the case in your household tested positive) and select the Critical worker exposure (self-identified) option.

If you are unable to fill in the form, you can call Healthline on 0800 358 5453.

Location of Interest visit form(external link) — Unite against COVID-19

Talking to your employees about the Close Contact Exemption Scheme and the Bubble of One initiative

You may have some employees who feel uncomfortable about the use of the Close Contact Exemption Scheme or the Bubble of One.  Some employees may also feel concerned they are at greater risk of catching COVID-19 if other employers are using the initiatives.

In these cases, it’s worth talking to your workers in good faith about the options that are available. Talk them through the strict requirements that must be followed if either the Close Contact Exemption Scheme or the Bubble of One initiative is used.  Discuss how these requirements minimise the risk of transmission at the workplace and whether all of these requirements can be met.

Consideration should be given to the level of risk faced by individuals. You can find information about COVID-19 and higher risk people at the Ministry of Health.

COVID-19: Higher risk people(external link) — Ministry of Health.

Engaging with workers who don’t want to come into the workplace

Unless you make an alternative arrangement with your workers, they are required to go to the workplace if you as the employer are satisfied that the following criteria is met:

  • all relevant public health guidance is being followed
  • work is permitted at the workplace under the current COVID-19 Protection Framework (traffic light settings)
  • all relevant duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act are being met
  • all required protocols are in place when using the relevant scheme.

Discussions around alternative arrangements have to be made in good faith. If an alternative arrangement is not agreed and you give the worker a reasonable instruction to come to the workplace, then they need to come into work.  If they don’t come in, and don’t have an agreed alternative arrangement, then they will need to take unpaid leave.

What to do if your workers want to use the Close Contact Exemption Scheme or Bubble of One initiative, but you don’t

Only an employer or a business can apply to be a Critical Service, and it is their choice whether to use it on a case-by-case basis.

If you don’t want to use the Close Contact Exemption Scheme or the Bubble of One process, but have employees who want you to, you should talk with them, in good faith, about the available options. You also need to consider the level of risk faced by individuals. You can find information about COVID-19 and higher risk people at the Ministry of Health.

COVID-19: Higher risk people(external link) — Ministry of Health.

If you don’t agree to use either of the schemes, you should try to reach an agreement in good faith with your workers on what approach will be taken regarding leave and pay. Guidance is available at Employment New Zealand.

Leave and pay entitlements during COVID-19(external link)— Employment New Zealand.

Employers may be entitled to some financial support to help pay the wages of employees who are self-isolating. They can check eligibility on Work and Income.

COVID-19 support for employers(external link)— Work and Income

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