13 May 2021

Govt must specify acceptable Covid-19 vaccinations for visitors when borders open - Fyfe

From Checkpoint, 6:08 pm on 13 May 2021

The Ministry of Health is warning the team of five million to prepare for a new norm even when most of the population is fully vaccinated and the borders start reopening to more low risk countries.

That new norm could be involve things like mask-wearing under level 2.5 rules, Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says.

Former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe is a member of a special advisory group set up by the government to look at our Covid-19 recovery.

He told Checkpoint mass vaccinations along with vaccine passports and pre-flight tests are crucial to our borders reopening, which will not happen this year.

And he said international tourists might still be banned from coming if their vaccines are not deemed sufficient.

"I'd love to be an optimist. It's really quite concerning to see how the vaccine programmes in all other parts of the world are not achieving anywhere near the penetration you'd like to see to allow borders to be open more freely than what they currently are," he said. 

"The challenge is the science can't give an answer to that question. If you look now, let's just assume that we can see vaccination down to age 12, which hasn't been approved here yet. But let's assume it gets here. That's 15 percent of the population - below that age - that won't be vaccinated.

"If you start with the rule of thumb which says you need 75 to 80 percent of a population to be vaccinated to get anywhere near a herd population immunity level, it effectively means we need everyone that's eligible to be vaccinated to get vaccinated, if we're to have any chance of getting population immunity. And that's a really big ask.

"Look at Israel, which is the leading country on vaccination. They've got to about 60 percent, now they're struggling to get past that in terms of the willingness of the population to be vaccinated.

"US is at a lower level than that. They're struggling to get people to turn up for their second vaccination before they head off on holiday to South America and so on.

"So it's a real challenge."

Unless New Zealand gets at least 70 percent of the population vaccinated, it will be a challenge to allow the borders to open any further, Fyfe told Checkpoint.

"There may be other measures we can use. I was in Australia yesterday, I couldn't believe how disciplined they are in using things like their QR code apps and so on, which are largely non-existent here, when I walk in and out of restaurants I see no-one using those.

"So if you use all the other tools, then that impacts the level of people you need to be vaccinated, because those things all act as an inhibitor to transmission of the virus.

"But our behaviour on that front hasn't been stellar up until this point.

"My concern is not that we won't be able to offer the vaccine to everyone. My concern is the willingness of everyone to be vaccinated, and I think the most important message that that I would send is that we need every person that's eligible for a vaccination to accept vaccination, if we want to see our borders opening more freely in the future."

Fyfe said with the vaccine bringing lower probability of transmission we can look at alternatives to how stringent our current quarantine system is.

He also said allowing visitors depends on whether their vaccine is approved by New Zealand officials.

"Not all the vaccines are similarly effective… I would hope that we have a vaccine authentication process. It could be a passport, it could be you need to go through a testing process before you depart from your country of origin, to prove that you have antibodies.

"This is just a private view, but you may have read some of the media this week - the Seychelles is 60 percent vaccinated at the moment with a Chinese vaccine, and they've got a third wave of the virus going through there that has more infections per capita than what's happening in India at the moment."

The government has to specify which vaccinations are acceptable for entry, he said.