Government's lax approach on Covid-19 vaccination costing New Zealand

7:25 pm on 8 July 2021

Analysis - The Labour government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic over the past 16 months has been marked by getting the key initial decision right; clear, consistent prevention messaging and a commitment to good science and fiscal support.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is vaccinated with Pfizer

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in June. Photo: RNZ / Louise Ternouth

It has been carried along by several waves of good fortune.

What it and its agencies increasingly seem to lack, however, is a sense of urgency.

As that impressive initial response fades in the rear mirror, this lack of urgency is worrying.

Yesterday Medsafe finally - and under some public and political pressure - granted provisional approval of a second coronavirus vaccine: the Janssen vaccine.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins proudly announced the provisional approval at lunchtime and reminded New Zealanders that we have an advance order for two million doses agreed from last year.

Chris Hipkins gets his first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins got his first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in March. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

What he did not say was when the vaccine would be rolled out because, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admitted in Question Time a few hours later, the government doesn't know.

It has ACT leader David Seymour bemoaning that we haven't even got the ordered vaccines in the country yet, even though Janssen had offered to get us two million doses by this month: "In the world we live in, the prime minister and her government make it up as they go, have no forward planning or sequencing, and still vacillate for weeks if not months waiting for the vaccine to arrive in New Zealand, then working out how to distribute it."

America's FDA gave the Janssen vaccine emergency approval in February, yet here in New Zealand, it took another five months for approval.

The minister and government agencies knew it had been approved elsewhere (Australia, Germany, Britain and many other countries).

They knew it was being reviewed by Medsafe. They knew that we have one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the developed world because we can't get hold of enough of our preferred Pfizer vaccine.

Minister Megan Woods had even promised Parliament in December last year that the Janssen vaccine would be made available "as soon as safely possible". A statement, you might think, that suggested urgency.

So you'd also think they would have spent the seven months since then preparing a rollout plan.

But no.

We have approval of the drug, but no drugs and no plan.

It's just the latest in a growing list of examples of our lack of urgency around our Covid-19 response.

From "go hard and go early" in March last year, we seem to have slumped into a "meh, we'll go whenever" approach.

The argument is made by some that we are taking a measured approach, waiting to see how the vaccines work elsewhere, waiting our turn as a relatively healthy patient in a sick world.

And it's true we can't - and wouldn't want to - demand more of Pfizer when the rest of the world is in such desperate need.

As far as the Pfizer drug goes, we get what we're given when they're ready to give it.

But that doesn't stop us from doing what we can do much better and with much more urgency. Like preparing for the next vaccine. Or testing properly. Or getting the highest risk New Zealanders vaccinated pronto.

Urgency matters, leadership experts will tell you, not because fast is always best. Urgency creates a focus and discipline. It means moving towards a priority, an end goal with a clear plan and markers of success along the way.

The point of operating with urgency is to work with intention and to inform your priorities. And it helps make clear to people that there's danger in the status quo and value in change. That attitude will help build national unity and dissolve vaccine hesitancy.

Yet in response after response, urgency is lacking. The trend is clear. And while we can be grateful New Zealanders aren't dying, many are suffering as a result.

After initial promises of urgency, saliva testing has slipped by the wayside.

Last year the critical Simpson-Roche report (initial report delivered September, final report only made public in December) urged the government to get on with it "as soon as possible".

Saliva testing provides for more and easier Covid-19 testing.

In May, Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) was given $50 million to do 20,000 saliva tests of MIQ staff per week. How many had it done as of July? The NZ Herald says 394 and Newshub 386, but either way it's hopeless. The company is keen to go but the government seems to be holding it back.

What about overseas workers?

New Zealand companies are in dire straits, to the point where this week restaurants turned off their lights as a protest in frustration at the lack of help getting immigrant workers into the country.

Many businesses need workers or will close. Existing staff are being over-worked and fear losing their jobs.

It's a pressure we've known about since borders were first closed, yet still, the shortages remain unresolved.

One place we could have housed newly arriving migrant workers - and refugees and more returning New Zealanders - would have been in purpose-built quarantine centres. If they had been started last year.

The idea of building special centres was debated as far back as last year's election; I argued on the Caucus podcast at the time that it was probably inevitable and it made sense to make a start.

Yet this week has Hipkins suggesting the government are only now considering taking a look at acting on this idea.

What about New Zealanders aged over 60, who were placed firmly at the front of the queue when it came to vaccinations?

This week the NZ Herald reported that "62.8 percent (696,198) of older Kiwis [60 and over] haven't received a vaccine, 15.4 percent (171,379) have only had one jab and 21.8 percent (241,843) have had both."

The vaccination itself, by most reports and in most parts of the country, is a simple and quick experience. But the macro picture doesn't look good.

And as if to underline this lack of urgency, the Canterbury DHB has just said it intends to vaccinate group 4 in September, rather than late July as nationally planned.

From 'go hard and go early' to 'too little, too late'

The government has lost its sense of urgency and in doing so has lost its way with its response to the pandemic.

Its "direction of travel" has become slow and unclear.

And in this case, the political is personal.

Kiwis ranked in group 3 are eligible for vaccinations now and I've understood that to be those 65 and over, pregnant women, disabled people and those with underlying health conditions.

But I've never seen or heard those "underlying conditions" spelled out.

If you go on the Ministry of Health website it says it is for those eligible for the publicly-funded flu vaccine. That means nothing to me, so imagine my surprise when I was on RNZ's Sunday Panel with fellow-asthmatic Penny Ashton and she said she was off for her jab. It turns out that if you use a daily inhaler, as I do, you're eligible.

But I have received no text or email telling me I'm group 3, even though the Auckland DHB's website says people like me are meant to be sent "invitations".

I had to ask my GP if I fit the bill because I'd had no information from him, as some reports say I should, and as the only health professional who knows my medications.

In this, however, I seem to be in good company, with many eligible people not being contacted. While some ineligible people are.

So far this increasingly lax approach has not cost us lives, but it is costing us.

As examples of complacency build up, it is time Labour rediscovered the sense of urgency it showed in those first hectic weeks of the pandemic last year.

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