Vaccine plan gets clearer, border doesn’t
There was a certain sense of excitement in the air. Nestled on green chairs in the drab Ministry of Health meeting room where Covid-19 briefings are held were Ashley Bloomfield, deputy directorgeneral of health in charge of data and digital Shayne Hunter, and Counties Manukau DHB chief executive Fepulea’i Margie Apa.
In what was labelled as a background briefing, the chief technocrats responsible for the vaccine rollout relayed more details of what was going to happen, why it was slow at the moment, and how it would speed up when most of New Zealand’s vaccines on order arrive.
This will achieve what Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has promised: that every New Zealander will get the opportunity to have two doses of the PfizerBioNTech vaccine this year. A big campaign will be launched in the next couple of weeks to ensure that as many people as possible take up the offer.
Target? As many people as possible, Bloomfield said on Thursday. The ministry – as with any other vaccination campaign – would be aiming for 100 per cent.
There are several key points that need to be made about the politics of Covid as it currently stands. The first is that the public trusts the Government and its leader. As more time has gone by, and other nations with less doctrinaire approaches to dealing with Covid-19 have suffered extensive lockdowns, New Zealand’s has looked better by comparison.
There has been pretty large public buy-in for the general approach. But that’s separate to competence at the border, which this week was revealed again to be less than optimal.
The fact that one border worker hadn’t been tested since November degenerated into a blame game between the prime minister, who alleged he had lied; the Covid minister, who said that the employer hadn’t done its job; and First Security, the worker’s employer, which said the noncompliance was only flagged in the Ministry of Health-run database in late March. Whichever way you read it, it was a big stuff-up.
Besides creating an air of evasion and incompetence, the brute fact is that the public will probably care only if a mess like this leads to a lockdown, which so far the Government has very fortunately managed to avoid.
National, led on the issue by Chris Bishop, has got the politics of this about right. It has pared back on its attacks on the slow vaccine rollout, and is probing legitimate failures of border testing, and applying questions about when the border workforce will contain only vaccinated staff.
During the week there was the appalling spectacle in the health select committee of Labour member Liz Craig trying to prevent the proper examination of MIQ and health officials over the Covid response by frustrating Opposition questions and instead getting officials to talk about ‘‘the customer experience journey’’ of people going through MIQ. Speaker Trevor Mallard even reprimanded the Labour members involved.
Quite aside from the Soviet practice of calling someone a customer when they literally have no choice but to go through MIQ if they want to come to New Zealand, it quickly turned a serious issue into a pathetic game of obfuscation and avoidance.
These sorts of antics will be particularly counterproductive, as they basically suggest the Government has something to hide.
The way forward now appears to have been split into three distinct issues: the vaccine rollout strategy, the vaccine rollout implementation, and the border.
On strategy, Bloomfield and co fielded questions on Thursday, explaining the approach.
The Government has named four vaccine priority groups: border and MIQ workers and their families; high-risk frontline health workers and those living in highrisk places; people who are at risk of getting very sick from Covid-19; and the general population.
DHBs also provided targets for vaccination this week. In part, this is so the Government can publicly hold them to account when it reports back on those numbers each Wednesday. The numbers the DHBs have been asked to deliver are realistic figures, which they think they can hit.
But there is something interesting in the numbers. Southern DHB, for example, expects to give more vaccinations than Taranaki. That’s because Southland has made a decision to head into remote areas and start vaccinating everyone who wants a jab while they are there. Each DHB is arranging its rollout to best fit its own circumstances.
Bloomfield noted this week that, although the priority groups were a good guide, he expected the rollout to be ‘‘fluid’’ and for each DHB to make its own arrangements.
Using the time while the country is vaccine-constrained to try and get into traditional hard-toreach areas and communities seems a good use of time.
The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in the eating. But it was notable that Hunter, the ministry’s digital boss, was bullish and confident in its booking system, the immunisation register, and basically the entire IT part of the rollouts. It is encouraging that senior bureaucrats put themselves out there, and that there can now be statements against which they can be held to account.
We now also know there will be a mixture of drop-in clinics, booked appointments, big vaccination events, but that GPs – who already run constant vaccination programmes – will be significant providers of the Covid-19 vaccine. The Government is also working on – once vaccine availability really rises in July – having vehicles running around the regions shifting vaccine doses to where the most demand is.
Overall, the system appears geared towards satisfying that most human reason for doing anything: convenience.
The Government wishes to avoid what has happened in Australia, where prime minister Scott Morrison made a lot of promises and set a lot of arbitrary targets that could not be met. That was then compounded by the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine will now not be used for under-50s. It’s now almost certain that not all Australians will be vaccinated by the end of the year.