24 Mar 2021

Covid-19 Response Minister with latest on vaccinations

From Checkpoint, 5:21 pm on 24 March 2021

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the new vaccine special categories are about trying to strike balance for genuine need, and they will not delay vaccine access for other New Zealanders.

Genome sequencing has revealed the recent Covid-19 case of an MIQ worker is a close match to that of a recent returnee.

Hipkins said it was possible that the cleaner worked on the same floor that the case was on, but he did not have a "clear answer" on whether they had gone into the room after the returnee had left. 

"When a person who has been infected with Covid leaves a room, they have basically a fog machine that goes in and sort of sprays the room before they are then subsquently cleaned."

An investigation is trying to understand how the infection occurred considering the fact that returnees do not leave their rooms before returning a negative test on day zero or one. The returnee had tested positive on their arrival day.

Vaccination exceptions

Cabinet today has decided to make exceptions to the vaccine plan, including for people who need to travel outside the country on compassionate grounds, like to provide critical care for a dependent, visiting an immediate family member who is dying, or accessing critical care not available in New Zealand.

While funerals are not included in the compassionate grounds, there may be a few hundred athletes who meet the other criteria for exceptions.

Applications will open on 31 March and more details on the process will be released by the government over the coming days.

Hipkins told Checkpoint the aim will be to turnaround applications as quickly as possible, perhaps "within a couple of days".

He expected there would be more people applying on basis of compassionate grounds than there would be athletes, because they would more likely apply in groups rather than individually.

"We're not talking about a huge number of people either [for athletes applying].

"We'll certainly be aiming to resource the system to make sure those applications [on compassionate grounds] can be turned around quite quickly, we do turn them around quite quickly for the applications for managed isolation."

Asked about concerns that athletes were being put ahead of vulnerable community members, Hipkins said they tried to get the right balance in the plan.

"We've set the criteria for early access to vaccines very, very narrowly. This isn't about people jumping the queue, it's about ensuring where there are genuine needs to travel that we can provide access to the vaccines for those people without pushing other people out of the queue.

"So this very narrow criteria we have released won't delay other New Zealanders getting the vaccine. If we made it broader and wider and covered a greater number of people then potentially it would delay the vaccine for others, and we haven't done that."

There have been 41,500 people vaccinated so far, and just more than 300,000 doses of the vaccine are available in the freezers. 

Hipkins said as the system scaled up, there would be a point where more vaccines would be administered than those arriving into the country. 

"We don't want to run out, so we've got to make sure, until we start getting the big deliveries which we're expecting in July, we've got enough vaccines on hand.

"It's about making sure as we ramp up, we've got enough vaccines to ensure that everybody who is getting one can get their second vaccine three weeks after they get their first one and that we don't run out in the middle of the year.

"It's all about when we finish, not about when we start, so we're under way but the key thing is we've got to make sure by the end of the year we want to be through this vaccination campaign."

So far, 1300 vaccinators have completed the online training unit course, he said, but only 300-400 of those people were active.

Kiwis still going on holiday overseas despite advisory

At least 424 Kiwis who have taken return trips overseas in the past year and ticked "holiday/vacation" on their departure card since a Do Not Travel advisory appeared on the government's SafeTravel website on 20 March 2020. 

Overall, Stats NZ said about 10,000 New Zealanders had bypassed that advice to embark on return overseas trips.

Hipkins told Checkpoint that MIQ facilities were designed to allow New Zealanders to return, not to allow people to come here for a holiday - even for Kiwis who live overseas but want to visit - nor for those wanting to leave for a holiday and return.

He said it was difficult to know how many were doing this, but "we do have some anecdotal evidence to suggest people might be coming for three months and then just leaving again."

But now the amount of time returning New Zealand citizens and residents will need to stay in the country to avoid paying managed isolation fees is set to increase to six months.

And this rule would stop people from abusing the system, Hipkins said.

The government would continue to review the measures if it appeared that taxpayers were having to subsidise people's holidays, because that was "not something we want to see happening", he said.

"We'll keep a close eye on that, if becomes apparent that that is happening then we'd consider whether there are other things we might do stop that from happening."