4 Oct 2021

Covid-19: Police questioned own vaccine approach after poor uptake of bookings

8:26 am on 4 October 2021

The police hierarchy asked staff not to get vaccinated early in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, unless they did it through the police's chosen provider.

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Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

That was because the police were prioritising knowing who had been vaccinated, over getting as many people their inoculations as possible, according to information obtained by RNZ under the Official Information Act.

At the same time, staff who were able to get vaccinated through the police's MedPro supplier were noted as being slow to come forward for their injections.

The government did not prioritise police officers when they announced their plan for the vaccine rollout, with the vast majority in tier four.

At first, only officers working in managed isolation were prioritised as part of tier one - just over 200 officers.

In April, the government agreed to move 1790 police staff into tier 1B, because they would also be deployed to MIQ facilities.

But emails obtained by RNZ show staff were slow to come forward for their vaccines.

Superintendent Mel Aitken, who is in charge of the vaccination campaign within police, said an all staff email was sent to encourage people to sign up.

"That was a decision made at the centre after a period of time targeting the identified tier 1 staff and having a poor uptake of bookings (despite sending reminders to each)," she said in an email exchange obtained by RNZ.

"I ran the risk of having clinics that were only half full and wasted vaccines, hence why I opened them up to everybody in the district."

Police Association president Chris Cahill said he had not heard of resistance from staff to get vaccinated.

The slow uptake was likely due to shift work, because officers were eager to be immunised, he said.

"That would be my take on it is that a lot of staff in this 1700 cohort were actually shift workers, so if you set up clinics during the day many of them wouldn't be rostered to work, so wouldn't get there," Cahill said.

"That would be my understanding, though I'm not totally clear on that."

Aitken told RNZ 3000 staff ended up being asked if they would like to join the tier 1B vaccine rollout, and the target number of 1790 staff vaccinated was met within the planned timeframe.

A week after those vaccines were cleared, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster's chief advisor Cassandra Anderson asked if a change in focus was needed around vaccinations.

"To date we've encouraged people not to go and get vaccinated outside of the formal police process and provider," Anderson wrote.

"This is mainly because we can know who's been vaccinated and schedule it in coordination with the flu jab and in accordance with the Cabinet directive."

Anderson asked Coster if the "status quo" should remain, or whether they should accept that if some people or districts can get vaccines earlier, they should let them.

RNZ understands there were times where vaccination clinics would have spare vaccines at the end of the day, and their first port of call would be the local police station asking if they had staff who would like to be vaccinated.

Those offers were often turned down.

Cahill said the police hierarchy did soon change their tune.

"Police originally discouraged that because they were concerned they wouldn't have a record of what police staff had or had not been vaccinated," Cahill said.

"But they did relatively quickly recognise, actually it's better just to get people vaccinated and we'll deal with the bureaucracy behind it later on."

The emails also show the police were trying to have their designation changed, and for officers to be recognised as essential workers in need of inoculations.

But the commissioner was advised that their status could only change when Covid alert levels changed, essentially when an outbreak occurred.

Coster was told the police could not have Cabinet's decision reviewed easily.

The police were eventually given priority at the end of July, shifting just ahead of the rest of the nationwide tier four rollout.

Mel Aitken said 80 percent of police officers have now received one vaccine, and 64 percent are fully vaccinated.

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