Covid-19 vaccines are poised to be rolled out in the Cook Islands from next Wednesday, and the New Zealand government has announced more vaccines and $120 million in additional support for Pacific countries.
New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the rollout in the Cook Islands would begin on 19 May. It was expected to take six to eight weeks, and would then be followed by programmes in Niue and Tokelau - both are also part of the realm of New Zealand.
The government today pledged to provide additional Covid-19 vaccines to Pacific Island nations, so their total delivery would reach at least 1.2 million people in the region in the coming year.
It also announced $120 million had been reprioritised from Official Development Assistance this year to support Pacific Island countries to weather the economic storm caused by the pandemic.
Much of the new package is tagged for Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which are both battling outbreaks of Covid-19, but some was also being sent to Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.
Further medical support for the Pacific
New Zealand's additional drive to provide vaccines to the region was in response to the increased challenges being felt as the effects of the pandemic continued, Mahuta said.
"By working closely with our Pacific neighbours and other partners, we can provide a further line of defence for our entire region - better protecting us all against the impact of the pandemic, which continues to rage across the world."
Fiji had accepted an offer of enough AstraZeneca doses for 250,000 people, though it was subject to MedSafe approval.
Vaccination programmes had begun in Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu using vaccines from the global COVAX programme, and New Zealand promised to top that amount up to cover the rest of their populations.
"New Zealand is following up its commitment to equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines by donating enough for 800,000 people through the COVAX Advance Market Commitment. These doses will go to developing countries, with a focus on the Pacific," said New Zealand's Associate Health and Foreign Affairs minister Aupito William Sio.
A partnership between New Zealand, Australia and UNICEF has been drawn up to provide more vaccines and other support for the Pacific.
"To support Papua New Guinea with its Covid-19 outbreak, New Zealand is providing $4 million to help fund its vaccine rollout, medical equipment for a Covid-19 field hospital in Port Moresby and logistical air support to get health staff, PPE and vaccines to remote areas of PNG," Mahuta said.
The package would not influence the rollout of vaccines in New Zealand, she said.
Additional economic support
New Zealand today pledged $120 million more in economic support for the Pacific this year, reprioritised from an Official Development Assistance fund.
"The economic disruption affecting many countries in the Pacific, particularly those that have tourism-focused economies, is unprecedented," Mahuta said.
"This funding will be used by our Pacific neighbours to help households get through this crisis, and support businesses to manage the uncertainty of closed borders."
Vaccination experts arrive in the Cook Islands
The vaccination rollout in the Cook Islands comes as a two-way quarantine-free travel between the country and New Zealand was set to open from Monday.
A group of experts from NZ's Immunisation Advisory Centre arrived in the Cook Islands yesterday to provide classes for medics on the preparation and administration of the Pfizer vaccine.
Immunisation Advisory Centre national manager Loretta Roberts is among the group, and told RNZ there is a strong appetite in the community for the vaccines.
"Everybody in the Cook Islands is anticipating the bubble opening, and welcoming guests to the Cook Islands.... so getting everybody vaccinated as soon as possible is what everybody is wanting to see.
"The most important thing first up is making sure that the storage and management in the cold chain systems are in place, so that the vaccine can be stored within the required temperatures."
Experience from the rollouts in New Zealand and the Cook Islands would help inform the programmes in the rest of the Pacific, Roberts said.
"Being able to be up here alongside the Cook Islands Department of Health... will give us a good outline and plan, that are then going to support Niue and the other realm countries, and probably some of the other Pacific Islands."