Government knew about flu vaccine distribution issues before it pushed a campaign to get New Zealand immunised

Newshub can reveal the Government knew about distribution problems with flu vaccines much earlier than previously thought.

Emails obtained by Newshub show one day before the vaccine campaign was announced, Ministers and the Ministry knew some doctors did not have any stocks. 

Despite this, people were told to get their jabs anyway. 

On March 18 there was a key public health announcement - Former Health Minister David Clark announced the Government's push to get New Zealanders vaccinated against the flu. 

It was an early start to get ahead of COVID-19, with Clark urging people to get their vaccines "as soon as possible".

Associate Minister Julie Anne Genter, also at the press conference, said the flu vaccine “was available now” for those most at risk. 

But on March 17, one day before that announcement, emails obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act, showed Julie Anne Genter's office, the flu distributor, Healthcare Logistics, and the Health Ministry knew some doctors did not have stock.

An email said: "Due to the volume of orders, it is likely that not all providers have received influenza vaccine yet". 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says he didn't see them. 

"I myself didn't see emails about flu distribution issues before we announced the campaign. We were keen to get the campaign underway. We had the vaccine."

Then, on March 24, just six days after that campaign launch came a "no surprises" update from Pharmac to the Minister noting that vaccine stocks were under stress from a spike in orders.

"This, coupled with bringing forward the vaccination start date...has resulted in the exhaustion of current vaccine stocks held by the distributor." 

Pharmac said it would brief the Director General that day - but the issue wasn't communicated to the public. 

The medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of GP's, Bryan Betty, says there needs to be more transparency.

"I think there needs to be clear communication about vaccine supplies and what's actually happening so yeah aspects of this is disappointing," he told Newshub. 

It wasn't until the end of March that the flu vaccine distributor told GPs of the shortage of Afluria Quad - the main flu vaccine brand.

"I think it caused some uncertainty. It caused some stress," Betty said.

The Health Ministry wouldn't explain if Dr Bloomfield was actually briefed on the issues, or why the public wasn't told but accepted "there were distribution issues which at times limited vaccine availability .. but this was rectified and more New Zealanders than ever did access the flu vaccine."

Newshub asked Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter why certain information was not relayed to the public on the day of the flu campaign launch. She told Newshub the communications on March 18 "was designed to be simple." 

She said "the key piece of information for the public" that day was telling New Zealanders about the early start to the flu campaign, and on March 25, the key information for the public related to the alert level 4.

Māori and Pacific people are worse affected by flu and on average, we have around 500 deaths a year from the virus.

This year, with the lockdowns from COVID-19, was the exception 

But the message from doctors is clear - they want support from the Government to do their job. 

And they want certainty over vaccine supply, especially heading into next year's flu season and the possible rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine.