2 Mar 2021

Covid-19 vaccination safety campaign needed now, leaders urge

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 2 March 2021

The government is being urged to hurry up with its vaccination awareness campaign, to avoid being drowned out by the anti-vax movement. 

The Ministry of Health says it has plans for a paid advertising campaign, which will launch in the coming months. 

With vaccines already being offered to border workers and their families, community leaders worry that anti-vaccination protesters are getting louder and they could be putting people off. 

Northland border workers were the latest cab off the rank in getting their vaccines on Monday. Brooke Sneddon welcomed her shot and the hope it gives.

"Maybe travelling soon, maybe it'll help stop the spread of Covid-19 which means we can all get back to a normal life everywhere."

Elsewhere in Whangārei, mayor Sheryl Mai said, the message around vaccines was not so positive.

"What we're seeing on the ground here are protesters, and they're making themselves very visible, they're putting their placards up, putting flyers into letterboxes, leaving them in public toilets. So unfortunately, from my perspective, that's what we're seeing."

While countries like Australia were already pushing their Covid-19 vaccine campaigns, Mai said that visibility was missing in the north of Aotearoa.

"It doesn't feel to be as strong a campaign about the benefits of vaccines, and as is rightly pointed out, our vaccination rate is low. We've had the measles, the uptake wasn't great.

"It's such an important part of our health that a campaign should really be in full swing now."

Mai was not the only one worried.

The University of Auckland's Dr Andrew Chen researches digital technology and ethics. He said while there had been a push from community groups to inform people about the vaccine, official information from the Ministry of Health was not being seen.

"The longer that we wait for an official messaging campaign, the longer that misinformation and disinformation can travel," he said. 

"We know misinformation and disinformation can spread very quickly, so people need to be prepared for that to happen. One of the most important things we could do is 'prebunking' - making sure that people are aware of how the misinformation and disinformation is going to be spread, so when that happens they are prepared for it. 

"I think we are close to missing an opportunity to do that here in New Zealand."

The ministry does have plans for an awareness campaign around the Covid-19 vaccine. In January it said it was recruiting the creative agencies that would be involved and would work with community leaders, social influencers and media to promote the official information.

The plan then was for the first stage to roll out in mid-February. 

Today Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield did not seem to know why that had yet to happen.

"There hasn't been a hold up, it's all ready to go and we're just waiting to get that under way, but as you're aware the first phase is with our border MIQ workforce and their families, and that's going well.

"There's no specific delay or reason for a delay."

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris is on the government's Covid-19 Immunisation Implementation Advisory Group.

She told Checkpoint she was aware there was a plan for a Covid-19 awareness campaign but the Ministry of Health was behind the eight ball in getting it out there. Meanwhile misinformation campaigns were gaining more momentum.

"I think it's accelerating and it's quite well-organised," she said. "It does seem to be taking over social media. While there's not a lot of people involved in this, they are very, very noisy."

Some surveys show about a quarter of New Zealanders have some hesitations around receiving the vaccine. If they refuse, the government could be cutting it fine to reach its goal of having a minimum 70 percent of New Zealanders immunised.

Dr Petoussis Harris said there was no time to waste. She said the ministry needed to hurry up as it was getting more challenging for health workers on the front line. 

In a statement, the Department for Prime Minister and Cabinet said a paid advertising campaign targeting the general public had not yet commenced. Work was still in development and it would launch in the coming months.

It said $14 million would be invested in the campaign but it was always the intention to stagger it, targeting those who needed it first.

It said communications and engagement to support the vaccine itself being rolled out to border and MIQ workforce, and the people they lived with, had been under way for a number of weeks.