More infectious variants of Covid-19 are increasingly being intercepted at the country’s borders, but the minister running New Zealand’s response is resisting pressure to accelerate vaccination plans despite demands from health experts as well as political friends and foes, Justin Giovannetti reports.
New Zealand’s first Covid-19 jabs will be administered in April to border workers – that’s the plan and Chris Hipkins is sticking to it. That timetable, already one of the most protracted in the world, could be further delayed if health regulator Medsafe doesn’t grant approval for one of the vaccines purchased by government.
The Labour government’s decision to wait on the roll-out puts it at odds with the rest of parliament. The Greens, National and Act have asked the government to move quicker and begin a vaccination campaign sooner. Today the Māori Party added its voice, with co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer writing on The Spinoff today that she had “come to the view that we need to the follow the example of Australia, the European Union, Canada, Mexico and Chile and bring forward the vaccine schedule to start earlier than planned”. She added: “I am calling on the government to do everything they can … to start offering vaccinations to MIQ staff and high-risk groups as soon as possible. They need to be fully transparent and release the vaccination schedule.”
The calls come as the virus worsens by the day around the globe, with deepening lockdowns and unprecedented waves of deaths. Based on the government’s current plan, tens of millions of people abroad will already have been inoculated before any New Zealander.
Hipkins, the Covid-19 response minister, says the longer schedule is needed to allow the government to plan the largest vaccination campaign in the country’s history. Thousands of health professionals will be trained to deliver jabs, new ultra cold freezers will be installed and doses will be transported and ready to go in April. No vaccines have been approved yet either.
That cautious planning may have made sense before Christmas, but it now looks complacent as the global situation deteriorates, says Nick Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Otago. In a world where one in 30 Londoners has the virus, and a steady stream of British-based New Zealanders are returning, the country’s border staff need vaccines much sooner, he told The Spinoff.
“We need a hybrid approach: vaccinate the border workers to keep us safe and then take a more leisurely and careful approach for vaccinating everyone else. There’s no doubt we should fast-track the border workers, so that within a month they’ve all had a first dose,” he said.
Based on current infection levels, nearly every flight out of the UK will have at least one positive case on board, according to Wilson. That’s a problem when passengers will be removing their masks to eat and drink. He’s called on the government to suspend flights to the UK or quickly begin vaccinating air crews. Hipkins has rejected both requests.
Genome sequencing in returnees identified 19 cases of people with the fast-spreading B.1.1.7 variant from the UK as of Monday, along with an additional case of the even faster-spreading B.1.351 South African variant. The variants have contributed to unprecedented increases in Covid-19 cases and deaths in their respective countries.
Vaccine roll-outs across North America and Europe have been plagued by chaos and delays. The number of jabs being administered is far short of expectations and some doses have been given to low-priority people before they expire. New Zealand says it will train up 3,000 full-time vaccinators to administer doses. Most of those health professionals will be ready after July, when vaccination will be made available to the general population. The government still hasn’t decided who will get vaccinated first after border staff.
The government also doesn’t have a plan yet for what happens to returning New Zealanders vaccinated overseas and whether they can skip or limit stints in managed isolation at the border. Hipkins’ office did not make him available for an interview despite multiple requests.
With Australia now preparing to begin its vaccine roll-out in mid-February, the political pressure is mounting on the minister to move more quickly. Speaking on the Kapiti coast on Tuesday, Hipkins reiterated that he didn’t see the need to be more aggressive in setting a timetable.
Instead, he said the government has moved to require pre-departure testing as of today, first for returnees from the US and UK. The testing will be expanded to more countries as it becomes clear that returnees can get tests there. Arrivals from high-risk countries will now be required to get a test when they arrive in New Zealand, instead of waiting for three days.
However, the mutant variants stoking fear around the world shouldn’t be cause for alarm, said Hipkins. “The new strains don’t necessarily have greater consequences in terms of health. People who get sick from Covid-19 from these new strains end up with more or less the same symptoms as if they’d caught the other strains,” he told reporters.
Unlike drug regulators in North America and Europe who gave emergency approval to vaccines, New Zealand will go through a quick process, but will base it on the outcome of more clinical trials.
“They are doing that because the consequences of not vaccinating people quickly are huge for them. We don’t have that same pressure in New Zealand,” said the minister when asked why other countries have acted faster.
“When we start the vaccination campaign is, to some extent, less important than when we finish it,” he concluded.
There is no emergency use provision in New Zealand law that allows Medsafe to sidestep its approval process, according to the health ministry. Other than a full approval pathway that can take years, there is a provisional approval process which allows for certain drugs or vaccines to be approved when less than full data is available. The ministry said in an email that it expects it will need to provide provisional approval for Covid-19 vaccines.
Nikki Turner, a professor at the University of Auckland and the director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, said the government’s current plan is sound, as long as the virus doesn’t make it through the border again. If one of the more infectious variants is detected in the community, a faster vaccine roll out will be necessary, she added.
“We are all anxious about the new variant out of the UK,” she said. “We can’t let our guard down.”
A damning report that looked into the country’s managed-isolation facilities last year found multiple issues with the long-term quarantining of Covid-positive cases in hotel rooms. The report, released publicly the Friday before Christmas Day despite having been given to government months earlier, concluded that hotels shouldn’t be used indefinitely as border facilities.
According to the government’s current timetable, managed-isolation will be necessary until mid-2022. Put another way, the Beehive thinks we’re closer to the start of the Covid pandemic than to the end of it.
The country needs a debate about the future of border facilities, especially if vaccines wait until April, says Wilson. There have already been six cases where Covid has escaped the country’s border facilities, he said. Seven, if you count the Auckland outbreak in August that killed three people and ended only after a lockdown that cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s still unclear how the virus got into the community in that case.
Back on the question of vaccines, Turner warned caution about moving too quickly. She said the government could lose public trust if it rushes into vaccinations without allowing Medsafe proper time to look into the vaccines.
“We’re in a very privileged position where most of the world has no choice at all. While we are waiting for vaccines, no one in New Zealand is dying, no one in New Zealand is on a ventilator. There are places that need vaccines way more than us. New Zealand, ease off a bit,” she said. “We’re moving fast, we will get vaccines, we will get them authorised. It won’t be as fast as some people want, but my gosh, New Zealanders aren’t dying.”