COVID-19: Government's under-fire vaccination rollout slow and 'incompetent' - Des Gorman

A leading medical expert has branded the Government and its under-fire vaccination rollout as "incompetent", declaring "a shambles" is too generous of a description for the flawed and slow-moving system.

University of Auckland medical professor Des Gorman has strongly criticized the Government for failing to accelerate the administration of vaccinations, noting at the current rate, it will take roughly five years to inoculate New Zealand's population against COVID-19.

The Government's vaccination campaign has come under scrutiny in recent days after three workers at Auckland's Grand Millennium managed isolation facility tested positive for the virus. It was revealed during a press conference on Monday that Cases B and C - two security staffers at the facility - had yet to receive their two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Staff stationed at the border and in managed isolation and quarantine facilities are currently the Government's top priority for inoculation, with high-risk frontline workers also eligible for the vaccine. However, a number of employees have yet to receive their first dose, with Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield admitting on Monday that officials "don't have exact numbers" on how many staff are continuing to work unvaccinated. 

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday morning, Gorman said a lack of staff capable of administering the vaccine is not an excuse for the sluggish rollout to the 50,000-strong workforce. 

"It's hard to reconcile that we're a year into a pandemic and we're having conversations like this," Gorman said.

"This is incompetence. You should never go for complex explanations when 'incompetence' will describe what you're seeing.

"This is a system that doesn't have an operational capacity and I believe we're also worried about the supply of the vaccine… with all due respect, get as many vaccines as you can to as many arms as you can, as fast as you can."

Last month, roughly 1300 vaccinators had undergone specialist online training allowing them to administer the vaccine. However, the national manager of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, Loretta Roberts, told Newshub New Zealand would need around 15,000 to inoculate the wider public.

There are concerns that New Zealand does not have enough workers capable of administering the vaccine, with physiotherapists, occupational therapists and anaesthetic technicians now being recruited to supplement the vaccinator deficit. 

New Zealand Nurses Organisation spokesperson Kate Weston told Newshub last month that vaccinators also need practical CPR training, a costly endeavour.

But Gorman argues inoculation "isn't rocket science".

"It doesn't take long - it's not rocket science. Carrying out a vaccination does require some training, but it's not six years of medical school, for goodness sake," he said. 

The professor suggested the Government may have become complacent following New Zealand's early success at eliminating the virus, which may explain why healthcare staff weren't trained at an earlier stage in preparation for a future vaccination rollout. 

But the Government insists the campaign is on-track, with only a small portion of the border workforce yet to be vaccinated. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Dr Bloomfield said all staffers had been invited to receive the vaccine, but not everyone would be taking up the offer

"There will be a range of reasons why people haven't been vaccinated - some didn't want to be," he said. "There would be others who wanted questions answered and who might look to see what their colleagues were doing, and there would be some, at the end of the day, who would be unwilling to be vaccinated.

"This is not because there hasn't been the opportunity for people to be vaccinated."

In March, the Government confirmed that border workers who refuse to be vaccinated will be removed from frontline jobs. Those conversations will begin this week, Dr Bloomfield said on Monday. Currently, border staffers have until the end of April to undergo vaccination before they are redeployed elsewhere.

The Government has also reiterated it will not make inoculation mandatory due to the risk of escalating anti-vaccination sentiments - but Gorman argues there should be "zero tolerance" for border staff refusing the jab

"I have no tolerance for that. The fact there's still unvaccinated people still working at the border I think is completely unacceptable," he said.

"It should be, 'sorry, you're not vaccinated - you're not at work today'."

On Monday, the Director-General of Health said more than 110,000 doses have been administered nationwide and the Ministry of Health is continuing to work with district health boards regarding supply-and-demand. He also said progress is being made with the vaccination of Group 2, high-risk frontline workers and people living in high-risk places - a group comprising approximately 480,000 people. 

During a post-Cabinet briefing on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern glossed over suggestions that speed was an issue, arguing the campaign is "pretty close to being on track" despite some delays over the Easter weekend.

"We're at 95 percent of where we expected to be right now," she said.

The current data available from the Ministry of Health shows more than 90,200 doses of vaccine have been administered so far - about 1.9 doses per 100 people. However, only 19,273 have received both doses and are therefore fully vaccinated. 

Although Dr Bloomfield dismissed suggestions the campaign is being stunted by problems with New Zealand's vaccine supply, Gorman said it "doesn't make sense" for the Government to "hold back on vaccination volumes". The rollout has been staggered into four groups, with Group 3 - people who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 - not eligible for vaccination until next month. New Zealand's general population - Group 4 - is not expected to receive the vaccine until around July.

"It doesn't make sense to me that we're holding back on our vaccination volumes. I can assume there's some concerns about the supply of the vaccine - there's no other reason why we'd be running at such modest levels," Gorman said.

"To actually vaccinate the country this year, we need to be hitting over 27,000 vaccinations a day… why is there a hold-up?"

The Government is now moving to implement a testing register to record the routine swabbing of border workers, a decision that has been derided as too little, too late. 

It was revealed on Monday that Case B, the security guard at the Grand Millennium who tested positive for COVID-19 on April 8, had not undergone a test for roughly a month. Until his swab last week, it's understood the staffer had not been tested since the middle of March - despite the legal requirement for border workers to undergo frequent testing.