COVID-19: What New Zealand can learn from Ireland's leading vaccination campaign

As New Zealand faces an uphill battle to vaccinate its eligible population, a public health expert in Ireland has provided insight into the COVID-ravaged nation's successful vaccination campaign - suggesting the lack of severe illness and death in Aotearoa has failed to instill a sense of fear in the public. 

Last week, Ireland was ranked as the best country to be in during the pandemic, topping the Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking for its response to the virus and the rise of the Delta variant - securing the top spot that New Zealand once occupied. 

Ireland peaked at the top of the monthly report after climbing three places from August, nudging Norway from number one. 

Bloomberg's Resilience Ranking is a "monthly snapshot" of where the virus is being handled the most effectively with the least social and economic upheaval. It is calculated using 12 data indicators that span virus containment, the quality of healthcare, vaccination coverage, overall mortality and progress toward restarting travel and easing border curbs.

After being named the best place to be during the pandemic in November 2020, New Zealand has now toppled 37 places - falling behind nations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia-Pacific to settle at 38. 

New Zealand's fall from grace has been compounded by an ongoing struggle to stamp out the outbreak in Auckland, a region now approaching two months in lockdown. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said officials will scrap stay-at-home orders and look to ease restrictions at the border when 90 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated - but until then, strict controls on international travel will remain in place. 

It comes as Bloomberg praises Ireland's "startling turnaround" from the beginning of the year, when it had experienced the worst outbreak in the world. 

"Even as the peak summer travel season unfolded alongside delta's spread, Ireland and places like Spain, the Netherlands and Finland held down serious illness and deaths through pioneering moves to largely limit quarantine-free entry to immunized people," the report said.

"Bestowing more domestic freedoms on the inoculated helped boost vaccination levels to some of the highest in the world - over 90 percent of Ireland's adult population has received two shots - while allowing social activity to resume safely."

Despite rising case numbers caused by the highly infectious Delta variant, on July 26 the Irish government opted to open bars and restaurants to people who were fully vaccinated, or who had contracted COVID-19 in the past six months. There were more than 1000 cases that day. 

Ireland has continued to gradually ease its restrictions, with cinemas and theatres allowed to increase their capacity to 60 percent as of September 6 - if all members of the audience are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the virus. 

Masks continue to remain mandatory on public transport and self-isolation is still expected if someone falls ill.

But Ireland's phased reopening and return to relative freedom has not been without sacrifice, with the country continuing to record significant numbers of new cases each day. On Saturday (local time), 1586 cases were reported, with 40,046 active infections nationwide. On Sunday, 1051 new cases were recorded, with 319 people being treated in hospitals around the country. Sixty of these patients are in intensive care units.

According to Ireland's Health Protection Surveillance Centre, 17 deaths were notified between September 22 and September 28 - this number differs from Worldometers, which has recorded 40 deaths in the week to September 29. 

Meanwhile, New Zealand's Government is facing mounting scrutiny with the spotlight on its response. Prominent figures have questioned whether enough is being done to lead the country out of lockdown, such as former Prime Minister Sir John Key, who launched stinging criticism at "self-congratulatory" Ardern for locking New Zealanders away in a "smug hermit kingdom"

Currently, almost 80 percent of New Zealand's eligible population - those aged 12 and over - have received their first dose of the vaccine, but just 46 percent are fully vaccinated. 

Comparatively, as of September 22, around 92 percent of adults aged 18 and over in Ireland have received at least one dose, with over 88 percent of the over-18 population now fully vaccinated.

Karina Butler, an Irish professor of paediatrics and the chair of Ireland's National Immunisation Advisory Committee, says the nation learned about the importance of dispelling misinformation after uptake of the HPV vaccine dropped dramatically in certain areas.

"We've had problems with vaccines before, for example, with the HPV vaccine. When there was dissemination of misinformation, vaccination dropped from 82 percent when it was introduced, right down to 47 percent in some areas," Butler told The AM Show on Monday.

"The experience of that helped set the groundwork for dealing with this. That was where we learned that we had to bring different people together, but also there was information about misinformation that was put out there - I think the public already knew they had to go to trusted sites to get good information about the vaccine, that was one of the things that really helped."

Butler says the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Ireland has been fortified by a number of different experts from various sectors of the health system, covering all areas of concern. For example, women who are worried about getting vaccinated during pregnancy are able to receive accurate information from obstetricians, whose voices are represented in the rollout. 

"The drive has been led by public health and with appropriate clinicians," Butler said. 

"It was bringing the right voices and clinical voices to the fore so that people could listen [to] and trust the message, a single message that was given."

She believes complacency could be an issue for New Zealand, a nation that has recorded only 3995 cases and 27 deaths since the pandemic began last year. Comparatively, Ireland has recorded more than 5200 deaths and over 393,000 cases.

She says if people don't see the virus as a threat, there is less urgency to get vaccinated. 

"We really dealt with tragedy all around… it has hit almost every family and extended family. There's no doubt that made people realise that COVID really is a serious infection and different from the flu… people did learn that lesson in a very hard way," Butler said.

She noted there are no monetary incentives in Ireland to encourage uptake of the vaccine, however public health teams are continuing to target harder-to-reach communities. She says an important element is providing information and resources in their own language to foster a greater sense of trust and unity. 

Young people in Ireland have been particularly motivated by the prospect of not being able to travel abroad, Butler said. As summer approached, the younger demographic were spurred by the knowledge that if they were unvaccinated, they would be prevented from boarding a plane or eating at restaurants - which served as a "big incentive". 

With summer around the corner in New Zealand, the Government hopes to introduce digital vaccine certificates sometime in November. As the nation staggers towards its golden target of 90 percent, officials have promised to do everything they can to ensure the public enjoys a "classic Kiwi summer" - hopefully without COVID-19.