Jacinda Ardern expresses concern about COVID-19 'vaccine nationalism' as National pushes for roll-out date

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has expressed concern about "vaccine nationalism" - other countries hogging COVID-19 jabs - as National pushes the Government to give an exact roll-out date. 

New Zealand's medicine regulator Medsafe has given provisional approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be rolled out, but the Government has not yet provided a date for when the shipment of 750,000 doses will arrive. 

National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said on Wednesday Medsafe's approval is "good news", but more certainty about when the vaccines will be delivered is required from the Government before we can celebrate. 

In November, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand would be at the front of the vaccine queue, but with no confirmed date of when vaccines will arrive in the country, Bishop says the reality is the Government has been a "laggard" when it comes to vaccines.

"Over 50 other countries have already started vaccinating their populations. The Government has tough questions to answer regarding its contracts with the various vaccine suppliers. What do the contracts say on delivery dates?  Did the Government negotiate hard enough?"

Ardern told reporters on Wednesday that the Government's full expectation is to vaccinate border workers in the first quarter of the year and then commence a public campaign from July. 

"That means, of course, we're getting our house in order so that when those vaccines arrive, we are ready to start that roll-out immediately," she said. 

When asked why New Zealand has fallen behind the more than 50 other countries that have already begun rolling out vaccines, Ardern said the reality is that New Zealand doesn't need them as much. 

"As we've talked about many times, you only need to look around the world to see the huge need that exists abroad. People are dying daily in large numbers. That is just not the case here," Ardern said. 

"We are very lucky that through the efforts of the team of 5 million we are not experiencing widespread transmission and we are not seeing people dying. That's why there has been that priority elsewhere."

Bishop isn't buying her response. 

"The Government's latest argument is that other countries need the vaccine more than we do. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean no vaccines for New Zealanders for many years to come, which even the Government isn't proposing."

The demand for vaccines around the world was illustrated last week when the European Union announced export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc, amid a row about delivery shortfalls.

Ardern said she's been advised that it will not affect New Zealand's supply of vaccines, but it does raise wider concerns about countries hoarding jabs. 

"I do have a general concern around what looks like vaccine nationalism. The world just can't afford for that to happen. We won't be safe until we have widespread roll-out across the globe so it's in everybody's interest that we see vaccine programmes continuing to roll-out in other countries."

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.

The Government has revealed that managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) cleaners, nurses, security staff and those who undertake health checks are first in line, as are custom and border officials, and airline staff. 

Ardern said from there, the Government will follow a tier system, which Cabinet will soon lay out in more detail. 

"We'll be working through those border workers who at the moment we require a test - that's an indication they are at risk. Then we work through their household contacts because the most likely to be infected by border workers are the people they live with. Then we work through those in health roles that may have contact, those at risk via aged care facilities, and we work through from there."

Union E tū said it supports the Government's commitment to ensuring border workers and their families are prioritised in the rollout of vaccines. 

Ardern said she will gladly get the vaccine, as will her family members, to prove it is safe. But she said she is not in the priority group because she does come into contact with people who are at risk of having COVID-19.