Coronavirus: How New Zealand's vaccine programme will ramp up, why targets aren't being hit

Over one year living in a pandemic, the world is slowly moving towards a new normal as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out globally.

New Zealand began its vaccine roll-out in February for frontline workers and has since expanded to inoculating family members and other people closely connected to these staff members.

A new tool released on Wednesday by the Ministry of Health tracks how many COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in New Zealand. But data from the ministry shows the number of vaccines given is slightly behind its target.

The data shows the number of vaccines planned and administered each week, and New Zealand has been just behind its target for the past three weeks.

For the week ending April 4, the goal was to administer 31,523, but instead, 28,156 were delivered. The week before, 20,695 were to be given, but 19,451 were administered.

Coronavirus: How New Zealand's vaccine programme will ramp up, why targets aren't being hit
Photo credit: Ministry of Health

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield defended New Zealand's vaccine rate on Wednesday, despite it not quite hitting weekly targets.

"We have made a very good start to this programme, we are delivering a safe programme for New Zealanders, we want to build trust and confidence in it, and now it is starting to scale up," he says.

"From this coming week, we're expecting 35,000 doses a week to be delivered and it will continue to ramp up from there."

Dr Bloomfield says since New Zealand's primary vaccine is Pfizer, this comes with some advantages but it is also logistically tricky since it requires special freezers and needs to be premixed in the vials.

"So we want to make sure that every single new venue that is brought on into the programme that [these regulations are] tested and that the procedures are all safe."

When asked about New Zealand's vaccination rate, he says we are in a different situation to most other countries, many of which have had large community outbreaks of COVID-19. 

'We've been in a very fortunate and hard-won position of being COVID-free and we don't want to take our eye off the ball, so the vaccination programme is rolling out in that context," he says.

"And I think a good comparison is Australia who is also rolling out at a very similar rate and we will be doing it in a fashion that is safe."

Australia was criticised last week for being behind on its vaccine rollout. Its original goal was to give 4 million doses by the end of March, yet it has so far given 841,885. Comparatively, New Zealand has administered 90,286, which includes both first and second doses given.

New Zealand's population is roughly one-fifth of Australia's, meaning about 168,377 vaccines should've been given if we wanted to proportionately compare our rollout.

Dr Bloomfield maintains New Zealand is on schedule.

"We're not far behind them, we're actually at a very similar proportion of the population vaccinated," he says.

"It's standing up the vaccination programme on top of continuing, as Australia is, to run our healthcare system and deliver healthcare to all New Zealanders. And a significant effort that our country is putting in to, as is Australia, managing our border - that is a significant deployment of our workforce."

He says that to date, they've delivered 96 percent of vaccines they've expected. Each District Health Board has also got an indication of the number of vaccines over the coming months they're expected to deliver so they can plan.

The National Party's COVID-19 response spokesperson, Chris Bishop, says a leaked report, dated January 26, from the Ministry of Health shows the vaccine rollout is "nowhere near" what the Government planned for in January.

"Leaked data shows that at this point in the vaccine roll-out, a cumulative total of 390,413 vaccine should have been administered, but only 90,286 have been so far, a pathetic 23 percent," he says.

"After promising New Zealanders we were at the front of the queue for COVID-19 vaccines, nearly every other country in the OECD is now ahead of us, with just Japan behind New Zealand."

He says that as of Tuesday, New Zealand has administered 1.9 doses per 100 people, whereas Australia has given 3.31 per 100 people.

"Australia has recently been criticised for the slow pace of its vaccine roll-out, but New Zealand is even worse and there’s no sign we're picking up the pace," Bishop says.

"National is deeply concerned about the vaccine rollout."

When Bishop questioned COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins about this document in Parliament's Question Time on Wednesday, the minister defended the Government's roll-out plan.

"The Ministry of Health put forward in the early half of the year - late last year and early into this year - of a variety of different models for the potential vaccine rollout, which at that point, they didn't have information on when vaccines were going to be arriving throughout the year," Hipkins says.

"We're not [behind], we're tracking at about 95 percent of the allocation schedule that we have been working to."

Bishop then asked Hipkins about New Zealand being second-lowest in the OECD in terms of its vaccination rate. Hipkins says there are several reasons for that.

"One, we made a decision not to rush the vaccine approval process, as many other OECD countries who have been dealing with widespread outbreaks chose to do, and New Zealanders can ultimately have good confidence in our vaccine programme because of that," he says.

"The second is that we did make a decision to switch the way we were viewing our vaccine portfolio to rely primarily on a Pfizer-based vaccine campaign. We had a variety of reasons for doing that. It did mean that some of the vaccine doses that we expected to arrive in the second quarter we have not taken delivery of because we are increasing the deliveries of our Pfizer vaccine in the second half of the year."

Criticism of the roll-out wasn't contained to New Zealand. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison brought up Aotearoa's vaccine campaign on Tuesday when he was addressing the newly-announced travel bubble.

When asked what he'd say to Australians who are disappointed with the speed of the rollout, he said: "It is true that at this stage of our rollout, it is actually better than where Germany was, better than where New Zealand was, better than where South Korea and Japan was, and so I think there will be some important context in the weeks ahead as we see the significant ramp-up of the distribution network."

Morrison also said Australia isn't experiencing the "dire [and] fatal" consequences that other countries are going through.

"Neither is New Zealand, whose vaccination program is, I would say, at a lower level than Australia's is now. It is not a criticism, it is just that they do not have access to domestic vaccine production."