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PoliticsJuly 29, 2021

Chris Bishop: Five ideas to improve New Zealand’s vaccine rollout

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As the delta variant spreads around the world, the importance of our vaccination programme only grows. And it needs to be better, writes the National Party spokesperson for Covid-19 response.

There are few things more important right now than the efficient and effective rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to New Zealanders. It is likely the single most important thing the government will do in the life of this parliament. The vaccines work and we need as many people as possible to get jabbed as soon as possible.

National has been critical of the government’s efforts to date. We were slow to sign contracts with the manufacturers of vaccines. Then we were slow to actually order Pfizer doses and we didn’t order enough. As a result, New Zealand has the slowest rollout in the developed world, behind Australia, behind South Korea, behind Japan, and behind Colombia.

Does this matter, when New Zealand has no community transmission of Covid, and we are safe locked away in our hermit kingdom? Yes. As public health experts have noted, we are sitting ducks for the highly transmissible delta variant of Covid, and the possibility of delta rampaging through our largely unvaccinated population (like in New South Wales and elsewhere) is real and frightening. That alone is reason enough to do whatever we can to speed up the roll out. But we also need to reconnect to the world – we can’t sit in splendid isolation forever.

National has led the charge on a range of sensible ideas to improve our response to Covid-19. For example, the following things were once dismissed by the government but are now either government policy or are being actively looked at: pre-departure testing for travellers to New Zealand, purpose-built quarantine facilities, saliva testing in MIQ and at the border, and separating higher-risk arrivals in MIQ from lower-risk arrivals.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, here are five ideas for improving the vaccine roll out.

Set a national target for the percentage we need vaccinated

It’s obvious that many people are keen to get vaccinated, which is great. But the challenge isn’t getting to 50% of the population. The big challenge is getting from 50% or 60% to 80% to 90% – and quite a lot turns on whether we can do that. Modelling by Te Punaha Matatini suggests we need around 80-85% of the population to be vaccinated before we could completely relax controls against the alpha strain of Covid-19. The number is 97% for delta, which will be very challenging indeed.

We urgently need to set a target for how many people we need to be vaccinated, and what that level means in terms of border restrictions. The government’s current line is just that “we want everyone to be offered a vaccine by the end of the year” which is superficially appealing but meaningless: what if that results in just 60% being vaccinated? The government needs to outline an ambitious target – and also what it will mean when we get there.

Setting a target in and of itself will make a difference. Kiwis are good at getting behind national campaigns and striving collectively to reach a goal: think telethons, America’s Cup red socks, even buying a beach. Let’s put the “team of five million” to work and get in behind a national effort to reach a goal.

Change the language: what are the benefits of vaccination?

At the moment, our vaccination communications campaign is almost solely focused on the idea of protection: protecting individuals against Covid-19, and protecting the community. Don’t get me wrong, that’s extremely important. But a lot of people sit back and think: “I can go to Six60, or I can go and see Fur Patrol (a better choice), I can go out to dinner, I can have mates around for drinks – not many other places can do that. Why do we need the vaccine?” A lot of people just don’t see the urgency for the vaccine because we don’t have Covid-19 in New Zealand, and we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping it out so far.

Try flipping things around the other way. Once we have a high level of vaccination coverage, New Zealanders can likely begin to travel offshore, visit family and friends, (and return) a lot more easily. For a lot of people, that is probably a motivator to get vaccinated. Vaccination means freedom. But the government, from the prime minister down, talks very little about what New Zealand will look like once the vaccination campaign is over. We’re told there’s lots of work going on around what our border will look like, but precious little has been shared with the public. The sooner that changes the better. We deserve to have a roadmap out of the hermit kingdom. A bit of hope is a powerful motivator.

Let’s try vaccine incentives

There are lots of people out there who are a bit reluctant to get vaccinated, or a bit worried. Education is one way around that, but why not design an incentive system to give people a nudge to get vaccinated? Other places are making use of positive incentives like payments to get people to get vaccinated. West Virginia is paying $100 to everyone aged between 16 and 35 who gets jabbed, for example.

There is good logic to this. A vaccine is a public good. A vaccinated population will mean the government avoids costly lockdowns, and mean we have more ability to begin to open our country up to the rest of the world. Just like we pay businesses a wage subsidy to lockdown and avoid community transmission, we could pay people to vaccinate.

The aim is all about behaviour change. Why not get our country’s top behavioural experts to devise an incentive system. Perhaps all those who book an appointment in the next 2 months, and then turn up to that appointment, receive a payment, or a voucher, or maybe enter a lottery for a big prize (and grandfather in everyone who’s already got one). Whatever it is, if it increases our vaccination uptake it will be cheaper than a lockdown.

Partner with civil society

The system at the moment is sterile, officious, and way too “one size fits all”. As Councillor Efeso Collins has noted, it’s driven by Ministry of Health bureaucrats, not by communities. Bureaucrats are generally good people. Heaps live in my (former) electorate. But they’re generally not good at grassroots organising from the bottom-up. The government should be considering partnering far more with what we used to call civil society to get jabs in arms.

DHBs should be connecting with churches, mosques, temples, and sports clubs and arranging for vaccination opportunities. Offer to help pay for food, drinks, and marquees. Make vaccination events actual parties and community gatherings. There are hordes of Rotarians and Lions Clubs members out there just waiting to help out in a national community vaccination campaign. We should be doing whatever it takes to get people there, and get jabs in arms.

During the Covid-19 lockdown I helped set up over 100 community Facebook groups driven by local “street captains” who took responsibility for making sure everyone was looked after on their street. Why not try a whole series of street parties where neighbours come and get vaccinated together, and share some fellowship at the same time? You never know, we might end up with a more cohesive and safer community out of it too.

Go door-to-door

At the end of the day, nothing beats going door-to-door. We saw this with the botched census – sending emails and text messages just can’t compete with a face-to-face interaction.

Before the end of the year we will need to ramp up door-knocking to get to the hard to reach parts of our communities. If we can do this for the census then we can do this for the vaccination campaign. It is just as, if not more, important.

The government needs to be putting in place the mechanisms now so we can target houses or areas with low vaccination. We could even try nurses offering on the spot vaccinations, or volunteers organising appointments. As every good MP will tell you, nothing beats face to face contact when you’re trying to persuade people.

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