COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern issues thinly veiled warning to anti-vaxxers as efforts continue to ramp up in Auckland

The Prime Minister has issued a thinly veiled warning to New Zealanders as vaccination efforts continue to ramp up in Auckland.

It's hoped by October 4, 90 percent of eligible Aucklanders - those aged 12 and over - will have received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Two doses are required for optimum protection against the virus.

The endeavour will provide health officials with a greater level of certainty that Auckland, the epicentre of the latest outbreak, is ready to move to alert level 2 - a far less restrictive setting that allows greater freedom, albeit with caps on gatherings and mandatory mask use. The region shifted to alert level 3 at 11:59pm on Tuesday for a preliminary two-week period after five weeks of lockdown.

According to the most up-to-date information, 4,867,818 doses of the vaccine have now been administered nationwide, 3,171,029 of which are first jabs, and 1,696,789 of which are second jabs - meaning around 33 percent of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated. Almost 50,000 doses were administered on Wednesday alone.

Health officials have said that once Aotearoa reaches a "very high" level of vaccination, the Government will gradually shift away from its reliance on restrictive lockdowns and begin looking at ways to slowly reopen the country. A new modelling paper, released on Thursday, says New Zealand would no longer need lockdowns if "well over" 90 percent of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19.

However, the modelling also suggests there would be around 500 hospitalisations and 50 deaths per year, even with more than 90 percent of the population vaccinated - and some moderate public health measures would likely need to remain in place.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warns that for any progress to be made towards returning to some form of pre-pandemic normality, everyone has to do their bit.

Speaking at the press conference on Thursday afternoon, Ardern called on Kiwis to play their part - with a barely concealed jab at those who have so far refused to get vaccinated. 

"The progress in recent weeks has been significant… 90 percent is within [our] sights. Now we need to work together to see all of our communities get up to those rates and beyond," she said. 

"It's not the Aotearoa way to leave anyone behind and it just doesn't feel right. So here is our chance to lead the world again and that comes down to each and every one of us. We have the supply of vaccines we need, we have the workforce ready to do the job - so have that conversation with your whanau or friends. Help someone make a booking or give them a lift to a vaccination centre. Each action, large or small, gets us a step closer to the opportunities and freedoms we all want."

Before taking questions, Ardern finished her opening remarks with a direct plea: "In the meantime, across all the debate… There remains one simple message: get vaccinated. It's the reason we should all feel hopeful."

Auckland is already sitting at 80 percent, a significant milestone - but those on the ground say the battle is far from over, and fresh ideas and creative approaches are crucial.

The last people to be vaccinated often comprise those who are hesitant, reluctant, or staunchly anti-vaccination - making the next 10 percent a challenging target. 

There are also concerns regarding the lower vaccination rate among Maori and Pacific people. The vaccine rollout has had great success in reaching Kiwis of European and Asian ancestry, with 47 and 41 percent of those eligible fully vaccinated, respectively. But only 35 percent of Pasifika and 26 percent of Māori have had their second jabs, despite being statistically at much greater risk of serious illness or death should they be infected, due to socio-economic factors and pre-existing health conditions. A number of reasons for the slower uptake have been put forward, including an inequitable health system and distrust of the Government.

On Wednesday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed vaccine passports are on the way. There has been growing talk among politicians, employers and the legal community over the rights of the unvaccinated - such as whether they can be denied employment or entry to certain premises.