28 May 2021

Week in Politics: An anxious wait for vaccines

1:53 pm on 28 May 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The political stakes are sky high as the government waits anxiously for confirmation from Pfizer that enough of the Covid-19 vaccine will arrive to keep the rollout going.

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

Chris Hipkins got his first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on 31 March 2020. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Here's the quote of the week: "We're fully expecting that by early July we will be starting to get to that point of potentially running out if we don't start to get bigger deliveries in."

That was Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins explaining at a briefing on Wednesday why the vaccine rollout could run into trouble - more doses are being administered than are arriving.

The rollout so far has gone well, with DHBs exceeding targets. The overall rate is 8 percent ahead of schedule.

It's the immediate future that's worrying Hipkins.

He doesn't have confirmed delivery timelines from Pfizer beyond July and the stockpile is being run down.

He told Checkpoint about 80,000 to 90,000 doses were being administered a week, and about 40,000 were due to arrive early next week. "We expect by early June that stockpile will have gone."

Hipkins expects to receive a confirmation on future deliveries from Pfizer within the next two weeks. He is really hoping he does because the political stakes are sky high.

"Forget about the Budget, its housing package or just about anything else the government has done this year," Stuff reporter Luke Malpass said.

"The vaccination programme is the one thing it absolutely has to get right."

The government promised that all New Zealanders will have the opportunity to get vaccinated by the end of the year, and Hipkins is sticking to that. He has frequently said that what really matters is not when vaccinations start but when they finish.

As RNZ reported, the rollout of vaccinations for the wider population (Group 4) has been moved back. The Ministry of Health changed the timeline on its website. It was "from July" and now it is "the end of July".

That was done without any explanation until Hipkins was questioned on Wednesday. He admitted on Morning Report the next day the way it had been handled "wasn't helpful".

He denied there was a delay, saying the intention was still to start Group 4 in July.

Most people could be forgiven, however, for assuming that the original "from July" meant the beginning of July.

Professor Michael Baker, Director, Public Health Communication Centre, and Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington

Michael Baker. Photo: Supplied / Otago University Wellington

Epidemiologist Michael Baker, the foremost pandemic commentator, said the government's original timeline had been an ideal one and slippage was always possible.

He was "hugely relieved" that most of Group 1 - border and managed isolation and quarantine workers and the people they lived with - had been vaccinated.

They were the ones most likely to contract the virus and cause an outbreak as Covid-19 raged around the world. "That is the one that worried me the most," Stuff quoted him as saying.

Opposition parties are watching this very closely.

Parliament was in recess this week but when it sits on Tuesday, National and ACT could put Hipkins under intense pressure. It won't take much for them to accuse the government of an appalling failure to protect the population.

Hipkins' comment when vaccines were developed that "we're first in line" could again come back to haunt him.

New Zealand, with its elimination strategy, isn't vaccinating the population as quickly as other developed countries which rushed ahead under emergency programmes.

The explanation, a valid one, was that we were not being ravaged by Covid-19 and could afford to carry out rigorous approval processes for vaccines.

There has been international praise for the way the pandemic has been managed, with New Zealand being seen as an attractive investment destination.

There's a potential downside, however, and it was explained by Stuff columnist Ben Thomas.

"In not so many months, our friends in the United States and the United Kingdom, where between 40 and 60 percent of the populations have been vaccinated, will essentially be back to life as normal," he said.

"Our national vaccine rollout, in contrast, is proceeding at a glacial pace. Just over 3 percent have received their second shot. Our figures are more comparable to India, a country with a vastly more complex and spread-out society, and with its logistics crippled by the out-of-control virus."

Thomas' column was headed 'We're at risk of losing Covid-free advantages' and his conclusion was that there was "an inescapable feeling that New Zealand, during the pandemic, has in some respects turned away from the world".

He said other Western countries were frantically recruiting the talent needed to ensure a strong economic recovery, with immediate citizenship being offered to high-skill individuals.

In contrast, residency applications were on hold in New Zealand. The estimated wait for an application to be assessed was 18 months.

In other political news this week:

Dame Cindy Kiro announced as the new Governor-General of New Zealand.

Dame Cindy Kiro. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The prime minister announced on Monday that Dame Cindy Kiro would be the next governor-general, succeeding Dame Patsy Reddy.

Kiro, who has been a leading child welfare advocate, was Children's Commissioner from 2003 to 2009. She holds a PhD in social policy and an MBA in business administration.

Kiro said she accepted the position with a "huge sense of gratitude and humility" and an opportunity to serve her country.

There was an interesting report in Politik on Wednesday about the reason why two Chinese MPs decided not to stand for re-election.

"National and Labour quietly agreed last year that two Chinese MPs would retire at the same time because of growing concerns about their relationship with the Chinese government," Politik editor Richard Harman said.

"National MP Jian Yang announced his retirement on July 10 and Labour MP Raymond Huo on July 21. Politik has learned from multiple official and political sources that the retirements followed intelligence briefings of both parties. The almost simultaneous announcements were orchestrated by the offices of Jacinda Ardern and Todd Muller working together."

Harman said the moves seemed to be part of cooling off the relationship between New Zealand and China which was exemplified on Tuesday with a warning from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta that a confrontation over trade with China was inevitable.

RNZ reported on Thursday that PR consultant Matthew Hooton - who was working for National's then-leader Muller at the time - also published a column stating the party leaders struck a deal in mid-2020 that the MPs would leave with "a minimum of fuss".

Labour and National declined to comment.

Mahuta warned in an interview with The Guardian that New Zealand could be swept up in the Australia-China trade war.

"We cannot ignore, obviously, what's happening in Australia with their relationship with China," she said. "And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we've got to legitimately ask ourselves - it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us."

During the interview, she urged exporters to diversify in case trade relations with China soured. She made the same point when she spoke to the New Zealand China Council in April.

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Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

A TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed Labour down three points to 46 percent and National up two points to 29 percent. It was the first poll since the Budget and the third Colmar Brunton poll since the election.

In the preferred prime minister stakes, Jacinda Ardern was up five points to 48 percent and National's Judith Collins gained one point to reach 9 percent.

That would have been a relief for Collins after Newshub's Reid Research poll on 16 May showed her plunging 12.8 points to 5.6 per cent, a result which caused some excitement in the media.

Stuff reported that Labour had shifted the goalposts on one of its key promises, saying $176 million for emergency dental grants promised at the 2020 election would be funded in a later Budget. Labour had said it would start in 2021.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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