Coronavirus: Expert says call to 'blow the health system up' during COVID-19 vaccine rollout is bad timing

One of the country's top medical experts says the Government couldn't have picked a worse time to be reforming the health system.

The Government announced last month - to the surprise of most - it would be completely scrapping the existing system of district health boards, replacing them with a centralised organisation called Health NZ, and a separate Maori Health Authority. 

But the announcement came right as New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout got underway. 

So far we've had 388,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine administered, with 120,000 people now having received two doses. 

University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman told The AM Show on Thursday it's inevitable booster shots will be required, with the virus running rampant overseas and constantly evolving. These would likely start in 2022 - right when Health NZ is expected to take over from the DHBs. 

"I have to say, to blow the health system up when you're trying to vaccinate 4 million people, that's not particularly clever timing, is it?" said Dr Gorman.

"We were going to struggle to do it with a coordinated group of people focused on doing it, let alone worrying about listing their jobs. 

"This lack of planning, I mean, this is an iterative problem. We've got to take it away from politicians and away from doctors like me - may I add - and put it in the hands of professional governors and managers." 

When Health Minister Andrew Little announced the reforms in April, he said DHB employees would transfer to Health NZ with existing terms and conditions. 

The reforms were in response to a review led by ex-Prime Minister Helen Clark's former chief of staff Heather Simpson, but went much further than anyone expected. 

Newshub has contacted Little for a response to Dr Gorman's criticism.

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

Vaccine manufacturers have started work on booster shots to protect against variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. 

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in April said it was "likely" a booster shot would be required, and if the virus keeps evolving, they might even be needed annually. Moderna, which makes a vaccine based on a similar technology to Pfizer's, has already got some in development aimed at fighting off the Brazilian and South African variants.

New Zealand's vaccine rollout got off to a slow start after the Government opted to use just one supplier - Pfizer - after potential problems emerged with others, such as those made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. That meant having to wait for the pharmaceutical giant to fulfil orders from other countries.

"It was delayed because we went for Pfizer rather than AstraZeneca, and that was the right choice," Labour MP David Parker said in April. "That means that our deliveries are slower."

Dr Gorman said without widespread vaccination we remain "isolated". 

"Yes there is an argument that vaccination has most application in countries with rampant disease, but there's an equally strong argument we're like a shag on a rock, and we'll be a shag on a rock until we're vaccinated, and our economy suffers. The next GFC, the next earthquake in Christchurch, we can't buffer it."

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