Labour's Dr Ayesha Verrall fends off jeering MPs in tense standoff over COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall fended off jeering MPs during a tense standoff in Parliament over the COVID-19 vaccine rollout falling behind. 

House Speaker Trevor Mallard was forced to intervene as the interruptions boiled over. He suggested Dr Verrall's pen-pointing at the Opposition was winding them up.

It came after the Ministry of Health published data about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in New Zealand, showing the number of jabs administered so far sits at about 95 percent against the Government's plan. 

A Ministry of Health document leaked to National showed at this point in the vaccine rollout, a cumulative total of 390,413 vaccines should have been administered by now, but only 90,286 have been so far. 

"Why, when the Government has received over 450,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, are we even close to administering 390,000 the Ministry of Health outlined in January?" National MP Chris Bishop asked Dr Verrall in Parliament on Thursday. 

Dr Verrall said the document he was leaked was a draft, early design plan which showed one scenario based on information available at the time. She said it reflected the first tranche of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine doses the Government purchased. 

Since then, the Government made a decision in February to purchase enough Pfizer jabs to cover the entire population over 16 years of age, meaning an additional 8.5 million doses. 

"We then developed a rollout plan that consistently scaled the number of doses given per day over time until July, when the majority of our stocks arrive," Dr Verrall explained. 

"This means the model we operate to now differ substantially from the draft document in question. We also made decisions in February to change the sequencing framework to prioritise border workers and frontline health workers."

Dr Verrall's remarks were met with groans and jeers from the Opposition. In response, she raised her voice and pointed her pen at the opposing side. 

"Let me be clear on what would happen if we pursued a rollout at the speed the member is suggesting: we would have burnt out the stocks and we would now be closing down vaccination sites, sending the staff back to their other jobs."

The Speaker interrupted the session and asked Dr Verrall to resume her seat. 

"I'm just going to ask people to turn the volume down on my left so I can hear the answer," he said. "I think if the member put her pen down it wouldn't wind them up in quite the same way."

MPs laughed in response. 

Dr Verrall concluded by saying the vaccine rollout will be delivered in a "sustainable way with an incremental increase over time until the stocks arrive in July". 

Bishop also asked about the Ministry of Health's revelation on Thursday that a border worker at the Grand Millennium in Auckland - who had not been vaccinated - had contracted coronavirus. Bishop wanted to know why the border worker missed out. 

"The investigation into this case is underway and indeed that will be a question we are asking," Dr Verrall said. "We continue to progress vaccination of border workers. We have achieved high levels of vaccination at the border workforce - over 17,000 people."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern provided further details. 

"What we'll be working through from Monday onwards is the closing window for workers who have not been vaccinated to be moved into other roles," she told reporters in Auckland. 

"My expectation is that all our frontline border workers for their own health and safety are vaccinated. We gave a set amount for time for that to happen."

The Ministry of Health understands two appointments for vaccination were missed by the case due to personal reasons. The employer is being contacted for further relevant information.

It said the company employing the positive case has vaccinated 79 percent of its managed isolation workers. Just 81 percent of the Grand Millennium staff have received their first vaccination.

A co-worker who often drove the case to and from work has also returned a negative result.