Australian TV hosts grill Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has defended the pace of New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout after Australian TV hosts pointed out it's "even slower" than Australia's. 

Ardern appeared on Australia's Today Show on Tuesday to discuss the opening of trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel, which she described as "wonderful" - but host Karl Stefanovic took a more serious tone on the topic of vaccines. 

"So you're currently vaccinating at an even slower rate than Australia," he said to Ardern. "Do you have confidence issues like over here and worry about the rest of the world opening up and us being left behind at all?"

"No," Ardern replied. "As we've always said in New Zealand, it's not when you start, it's when you finish that matters. I know between New Zealand and Australia, we're both looking to get really high levels of vaccinations."

Statistics collected globally show New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout is the second-slowest in the OECD, ahead of Japan. It also shows Australia's rollout is fourth-slowest, with South Korea trailing behind as third-slowest. 

Australia's vaccine rollout is currently undergoing a reset to get it back on track. Mass vaccination sites are being prepared, and the Australian Government has agreed to bring forward vaccinating people over the age of 50. 

In New Zealand, the elderly and vulnerable won't start getting jabs until about May, while the rest of the population isn't expected to start receiving them until July, according to the Ministry of Health's latest vaccine rollout graph. 

Australian TV hosts grill Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout
Photo credit: Ministry of Health

"Our rollout has been a steady one because like Australia, we don't have enough vaccines in the country to vaccinate everyone now, so we're doing it in cohorts, and we want a continuous trajectory," Ardern said. 

"We don't want to be in a position where we shoot up, then run out, and then have to get back up again, particularly because of the vaccine workforce."

Ardern pointed out that only the Pfizer vaccine is being used for New Zealand's rollout, while Australia is also using AstraZeneca, which has caused blood clots in very rare cases. As a precaution, only Australians under 50 can receive the AstraZeneca jab

"You chose well there," Stefanovic said of New Zealand's decision to use Pfizer. 

Stefanovic also asked Ardern whether she had considered a proposal floated in Australia to allow vaccinated people returning from overseas to undertake home quarantine. 

"We haven't considered that yet," Ardern said. "I think like Australia though, we really are looking to see what that data is telling us about people who are vaccinated and the risk that they present."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was interviewed by the Today Show's Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was interviewed by the Today Show's Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon. Photo credit: Today Show

Ardern said one of the issues is that once people are vaccinated, they often then aren't tested regularly in some countries, so the only reliable data is people working in healthcare, who often are still tested regularly. 

"That's starting to tell us that yes, it does reduce the chance of passing COVID on if you're vaccinated. So, I can see why we're considering all these different options. That just isn't one we've considered yet," Ardern said. 

"At the moment we're still using quarantine for vaccinated people who have been in high-risk countries, but we're very open-minded as more research comes in."

Ardern was also pressed on when New Zealand might open up quarantine-free travel beyond Australia, to places like Europe and the United States.

"There are a number of variables, but what we're saying to our public at the moment is look, the thing that we can be most certain about is that once we feel confident that we have enough people vaccinated, we can move away from the borders being that primary protection," she said. 

"The variables are things like whether data tells us that once a traveller's vaccinated they're not a risk, because that might enable us to treat people who are coming and going, who are vaccinated, a little bit differently to the way that we do now."