National, ACT take credit for COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins' confirmation of early vaccine request

Opposition parties are taking credit for COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins' confirmation that the Government has requested a small number of vaccines be delivered early to New Zealand. 

National and ACT have been piling pressure on the Government to explain why New Zealand has not yet received any coronavirus vaccines despite Bloomberg data showing 51 countries have already administered them. 

Hipkins told The AM Show on Monday that New Zealand will receive its first shipment of vaccines before the end of March for border workers. The general population will start receiving jabs in the second half of the year. 

But Hipkins confirmed on Tuesday that the Government has requested a small number of early doses to give at-risk workers. 

"We're exploring some possibilities as to whether or not we can get a smaller number of vaccines earlier to vaccinate our at-risk border workers, our managed isolation (MIQ) workers. If we can, we will be able to do that very quickly but it'll all be dependent on whether the vaccine companies will supply that."

In a press release on Tuesday titled "Government shamed into action", ACT leader David Seymour said Opposition pressure to "improve the timeliness of COVID-19 vaccine deliveries" had worked. 

"ACT has been saying for weeks that it's not good enough for New Zealand to sit back and wait until the second quarter to get vaccinations underway," Seymour said. 

"More than 50 countries have already received vaccines and they're inoculating their populations at a rate of 2.3 million doses a day. ACT hopes the latest negotiations to urgently get vaccines on our shores and into the arms of those most at risk are more fruitful than efforts to date.

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty

"They need to be if we're to reduce the chances of another costly lockdown caused by the virulent new strains of the virus getting into the community."

National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said getting a batch of vaccines early for frontline workers in New Zealand should have been a priority from the beginning. 

"Three months ago COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand was at the front of the queue for a vaccine. Now we are begging providers to give us a small batch to vaccinate frontline staff. This is a Government failure, pure and simple," Bishop said. 

"If the contracts the Government originally signed with vaccine manufacturers included a contingency for vaccinating frontline workers, we wouldn't be in this position. The fact that we are is due to negligence from the Government.

"If Singapore and other countries, many without COVID-19, are able to vaccinate their border workers immediately, why can't we? So much for going hard and going early."

National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop.
National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Hipkins said he couldn't go into more detail about the request for early doses due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations. 

The Government has invested in a portfolio of four vaccines - 750,000 doses from Pfizer/BioNTech, 5 million from Janssen, 3.8 million from the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca, and 5.36 million from Novavax. 

"They're working very hard to fulfil their advance purchase agreements. They're also working very hard to supply vaccines into the COVAX arrangement which will include some quite significant prioritisation," Hipkins said. 

COVAX is a global initiative that brings together governments and manufacturers to ensure eventual COVID-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need, whoever they are and wherever they live.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

The Government's more than 13 million COVID-19 vaccine doses will be enough to cover the entire population of New Zealand plus the Pacific - but Hipkins warns that it will take time. 

"New Zealand is one player in a very, very large game here in terms of vaccinations. I think we've done very, very well if you look at the advance purchase agreements that we have in securing an early supply of vaccines for New Zealand."

The Ministry of Health told Newshub New Zealand's medical regulatory authority Medsafe is still waiting for data from COVID-19 vaccine developers to make an assessment and begin the process to approve them for use.