Covid-19 vaccinations should be available to the public by the middle of the year, according to Covid-19 Recovery Minister Chris Hipkins.
Hipkins told Morning Report it was hoped the first batches of vaccines would arrive by March, but countries being ravaged by the virus would be prioritised by the manufacturers.
He said early signs from Medsafe showed no issues with the vaccines New Zealand has secured.
The Covid-19 vaccine roll out will be the largest ever mass immunisation campaign in New Zealand’s history.
The government has secured various deals for vaccines, including for 7.6 million doses from AstraZeneca – enough for 3.8 million people, 10.72 million doses from Novavax – enough for 5.36 million people, 750,000 courses from Pfizer/BioNTech, and 5 million from Janssen.
“We’re expecting the vaccination campaign overall to take most of the year, it’s obviously a huge undertaking – we’re talking about vaccinating 5 million people,” Hipkins said.
“That’s never been done in New Zealand before, in the scale and in the timeframe we’re talking about.”
Border workers, health workers and high-risk communities will be top priorities once the vaccine is available.
“We’re also expecting there will be some population groups that will be harder to reach than others, and so we’ve got plans in place and we’re putting plans in place to make sure we reach them,” he said.
However, the National Iwi Chairs Forum has put forward six recommendations for the vaccine roll-out and said that the government wasn’t taking account of the risk to kaumātua and kuia.
Hipkins denied this and said they were aware there was an increased risk for Māori and Pacific communities.
“For older New Zealanders there is an increased risk there too. Many of our kaumātua will fall into both of those categories, we’re certainly very aware of that and we’re factoring that in in our planning.”
Australia’s vaccine roll-out had been pushed forward to February and there have been criticisms that the government’s plan was too slow.
However, Hipkins said we would be receiving the vaccines in a similar timeframe as Australia.
“They’re a little more optimistic on when they think the vaccines will arrive than we are. I’m being cautious and saying we know they’ll be here by the end of March.”
He said he was optimistic that there would a public roll-out by the middle of the year, but it depended on when supplies arrived in New Zealand.
“We’re expecting to see a reasonably significant number of vaccines, three different vaccine types arriving some time in that second quarter,” he said.
“The sooner they arrive, the sooner we can start making them available to the general public.”
Cook Islands travel bubble
Hipkins said a two-way Cook Islands travel bubble was looking promising.
People from the Cook Islands are allowed to enter New Zealand without quarantine from Thursday, but as yet New Zealanders cannot go the other way.
He said some finishing touches were needed on the bubble agreement.
“The main thing that we’ve got to keep working our way through is what would happen in the event of a resurgence,” he said. “So we don’t want to end up with a bunch of people stranded in the Cook Islands or a bunch of Cook Islanders stranded in New Zealand.”
Charter flights considered for repatriation
The government will consider chartering repatriation flights for New Zealanders stuck overseas, if airlines stop flying to New Zealand.
Emirates has halted flights into major Australian centres.
Hipkins said Emirates was still flying into Auckland and there had been no suggestion those flights would stop.
“The advice I’ve had so far is that there aren’t big flight cancellations of airlines bringing people to New Zealand at this point.”
He said the biggest problem for people returning to New Zealand wasn’t flight availability, but rather the availability of managed isolation.