One Question Quiz
Chris Hipkins has his first shot. Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images
Chris Hipkins has his first shot. Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images

PoliticsApril 13, 2021

Five pressing questions about the state of New Zealand’s vaccination programme

Chris Hipkins has his first shot. Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images
Chris Hipkins has his first shot. Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images

Vaccinations are up and running, but are they happening fast enough, why haven’t all frontline workers had their first shot, and what about the stats? Justin Giovannetti outlines the concerns being aired.

While New Zealand’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is under way, it’s already hitting some bumps on the road to July when the entire population is scheduled to become eligible for a jab.

The government has yet to release a detailed plan of the programme, but the overall effort is running behind early aspirations, according to plans outlined in a health document leaked to National last week. There have also been problems with the IT systems built to coordinate the logistics of the rollout.

It’s still unclear from the issues that are appearing whether these are teething problems or if something more serious awaits. What is clear is that with little community spread of Covid-19, there is nothing like the public outcry being heard in other parts of the world. Still, these five questions warrant our attention.

Where’s the data?

About 110,000 New Zealanders have received at least one Covid-19 jab as of yesterday. That’s 2.2% of the population, about two months after the vaccination effort started on February 20.

We only know that number because prime minister Jacinda Ardern disclosed it in a press conference yesterday.

Health officials only release vaccination data once a week, currently Wednesday around 1pm. Unlike in most countries with large vaccine programmes, the NZ government says releasing daily numbers just isn’t a priority. That could change later in the year.

There’s also no data on vaccine deliveries. The country currently has received about 500,000 doses of the Pfizer jab. That number had to be requested from the Ministry of Health and hasn’t been proactively disclosed in weeks. Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, said that Pfizer provides a few weeks’ warning of when doses are set to arrive, but that information has never been shared with the public in advance of an actual delivery.

It’s unclear how many doses will arrive and when. However, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins has indicated that much of the country’s order will arrive after July when the effort ramps up.

As an international comparison, the US now expects its entire adult population will become eligible for a jab next Monday. The country is currently administering about four million shots daily, aiming for a Covid-lite Independence Day holiday on July 4.

Why shouldn’t other countries go first?

The government has always denied, having been asked numerous times, that it decided to slow the vaccine programme because other countries need the doses more. It’s also constantly maintained that export controls from Europe have had no impact on New Zealand’s supply of jabs.

What seems more likely is that New Zealand is lagging behind nearly every other rich country’s vaccination programme because of two key decisions: Officials signed contracts for delivery in the second half of 2021 when most countries plan to be done; and New Zealand just offered less money.

It’s been reported overseas that countries like Israel that have nearly vaccinated all adults offered up to $50 per course of the Pfizer vaccine, while the US paid $40 and the EU settled at $30. New Zealand won’t reveal its price, citing contract privacy. 

The contracts are long signed and vaccines are being shipped. The question now is why 80% of New Zealand’s delivered jabs are waiting in freezers, some for over a month. That has nothing to do with any other country.

What’s New Zealand’s target to use them?

There’s no publicly released weekly or daily target for vaccinations, however the government has released two charts showing the plan for the rollout.

One is purely “illustrative and approximate” according to the health ministry and isn’t actually a plan. The current programme is only delivering about a third to a quarter of the effort in the fictional illustration shared with the public last month as the “illustration of volumes and timing of vaccination rollout”.

The second chart was released last week and has a line labelled “plan” and another labelled “actual.” The two lines are very similar. They show that last Sunday the country was due to hit around 30,000 doses administered a week and was in actuality somewhere around 27,000. When asked what the “plan” line was based on, health officials said it reflected the doses DHBs said they were prepared to administer.

About 90% of appointments made by DHBs were kept under the second chart. It should be noted that the chart was only released with historical data. The government has yet to release a forward-looking plan that it actually intends to follow and has real numbers attached to it. Bloomfield has said that a plan until the end of May should be made public on Wednesday.

Are all frontline workers vaccinated?

About 86% of frontline workers in the country’s border facilities have received a jab, according to the prime minister. 

The country’s “rollout plan” for the vaccine, released in mid-March, had said the entire group would be finished by the end of that month. However, the government now says it’ll take until the end of April for all workers at the border and managed-isolation to get at least one of their two required doses.

May 1 is also the deadline to remove workers who have declined a vaccine from border positions. While the vaccine won’t be mandatory for all New Zealanders, border workers who are constantly exposed to returnees won’t have that option.

Are we ready for the mass rollout?

Whenever the government talks about the vaccine rollout, especially in comparison to countries who went earlier, officials mention that the vaccine went through a rigorous approvals process.

There was no emergency authorisation in New Zealand. So instead of starting in December, the vaccination programme here started in February. It’s not clear if the country used those extra months wisely. While questions have been raised about the low number of vaccinators trained and the lack of any mass vaccination centres, the biggest worry is around technology.

There will be no single national booking system for the vaccine. Instead, each DHB has gone its own way and built a system from scratch. The results have in many cases been poor.

Health workers in Otago have been using Outlook’s calendar function to schedule appointments, meaning some people have been contacted multiple times while others haven’t been contacted at all.

The Canterbury DHBs bought a system that was so poorly built that individual health information was, with the use of some simple code, available to users who could then also change anyone’s vaccination status. The Ministry of Health has been forced to launch a review of the booking system.

The Covid-19 minister has shrugged off the glitches as a teething problem. However, the entire national system needs to be ready to start administering vaccines to the general public in just over two months. The clock is ticking.

In the latest episode of Gone By Lunchtime, Toby Manhire, Annabelle Lee-Mather and Ben Thomas discuss the latest stories in New Zealand politics, including the temporary ban on arrivals from India, the Māori Party’s donations strife and more. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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