COVID-19: Government sets up scientist group to advise on vaccine rollout, border changes

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images

The government has established a new scientific advisory group to advise it on crucial COVID-19 decisions, including any changes at the border and the ongoing vaccine rollout.

One of its first tasks will be to advise on a vaccine target.

The six person group will be headed by epidemiologist Professor Sir David Skegg, and will be in place until mid next year.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said having the group was to ensure future decisions were "informed by the best available scientific evidence and strategic public health advice".

That would include looking at vaccination rates and scenarios should the borders reopen, interpreting scientific data for any decisions around the border, public health protections and consideration of the "residual risk of the non-immunised population and the associated health system capacity needs" once the border's open.

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said that could help inform decisions like how much of the population needs to be vaccinated before border settings can be relaxed, "evidence for transmission blocking properties of the vaccine, strategic public health controls when the borders reopen and public health responses to any new variants that aren't covered by our current vaccine options".

But the final call would always rest with ministers, she said.

"All of those decisions are decisions that Cabinet takes and obviously that doesn't change.

"But they will have an opportunity to feed directly and through myself and Minister Hipkins to Cabinet and they will be incredibly important, but those decisions are so important that we are trying to get a range of different information from within and outside government," said Verrall.

One early piece of advice she'd be keen to share was "how do we even think about a vaccination target?" she said.

"That seems to me something we don't need detailed modelling to be able to answer, but we do want a credible voice and saying, how will we approach this work early on?"

The group will report to her and Hipkins, and will also be expected to explain the science behind decisions made by Cabinet ministers to the public.

The group's members:

  • Professor Sir David Skegg - a well known epidemiologist and public health physician, he served as a special adviser to Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee and has been an advisor to the World Health Organization in Geneva for more than three decades.
  • Dr Nikki Turner - a specialist in immunisation, primary healthcare and preventative child health.
  • Prof Philip Hill - an epidemiologist with expertise in infectious diseases and research.
  • Dr Maia Brewerton - lead clinician at the Department of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at Auckland Hospital.
  • Prof David Murdoch - an infectious diseases expert and the Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch.
  • Dr Ella Iosua - a biostatistical expert at the University of Otago.
  • Rodney Jones (Special Advisor) -
  • Shaun Hendy (Special Advisor)