Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall defends NZ's fall from #1, asks for patience over COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall is asking for patience as New Zealand's vaccine rollout lags behind, leading to a slip in our global COVID-19 response ranking. 

Thanks to a speedy rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Singapore is now ranked #1 in the world for its COVID-19 response in the Bloomberg COVID Resilience Index, pushing New Zealand down to #2 for the first time. 

"Singapore has already administered vaccines equivalent to cover a fifth of its population, an aspect of pandemic control that other virus eliminators like New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan are lagging on," Bloomberg noted in its update this week. 

Bloomberg's ranking is based on a range of factors, including reported cases and deaths per capita, the case fatality ratio, vaccine rollout, restrictions on movement, GDP growth and the healthcare system as a whole.

While New Zealand has only recorded a single death to COVID-19 in the past six months, having eliminated community transmission, it has only vaccinated about 2 percent of the population compared to almost 20 percent in Singapore. 

National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop says the Government's slow vaccine rollout has caused New Zealand to slip behind Singapore when they should be on equal footing given the similar populations and circumstances. 

"We have done well to keep COVID-19 at bay but we must not rest on our laurels. The world is vaccinating way faster than we are, which will give them options for reconnecting to the rest of the world that New Zealand won't be part of unless we hurry up."

Dr Verrall says #2 in the world is not a bad thing. 

"That's still a very good ranking," she told reporters on Wednesday.

"I'd just point out that we have some of the best statistics when it comes to COVID public health outcomes in the world, including incredibly low numbers of deaths and enjoying a high level of community freedom within New Zealand, and trans-Tasman travel."

Dr Verrall asked for patience from Kiwis. 

"It's important to remember that we will have enough vaccines for everyone. To achieve our aim of having everyone vaccinated by the end of the year, we do need New Zealanders to work with us, and in some cases to be patient."

Just 60,024 people have received a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in New Zealand meaning they are fully protected against COVID-19. 

But Dr Verrall is confident the vaccination programme is progressing as planned. She said District Health Boards (DHBs) are on track to deliver more than 1 million doses by the end of June. 

The Government is currently focused on vaccinating the estimated 480,000 people in Group 2, which includes high-risk frontline workforces, staff and residents at aged residential care facilities, older Māori and Pacific people cared for by whānau, and the people they live with. 

It also includes anyone who lives in Counties Manukau DHB area who is aged 65 or over or has a relevant underlying health condition or disability.

Vaccinating staff and residents at aged residential care facilities is underway. Dr Verrall said all 42 aged residential care facilities in the Wellington region, for example, are on track for their first dose by Friday, May 14. 

It's also that time of year when many people, especially seniors, are getting the flu vaccine. The Ministry of Health recommends a two-week gap between the influenza vaccine and COVID-19 vaccines. 

The Government plans to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine distribution in July when the general population will start receiving jabs. The Government plans to bring on an additional 2000-3000 full-time vaccinators. 

Brochures advising people which vaccine distribution group they are in, and how to make appointments, are being sent to all households from this week. 

Dr Verrall, an infectious diseases expert, said she got her second dose of Pfizer on Friday - she's now fully vaccinated against the virus. 

"I would really encourage people not to hit the gym straight after getting the vaccine," she said. "I had a heavy arm after lifting some heavy weights and a slight rash on my arm for a day or so. I felt a little tired but otherwise, I felt totally fine."