Coronavirus: Vaccine rollout going 'as fast as it can' - COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins

Chris Hipkins says the COVID-19 vaccine New Zealand chose is "worth waiting for", amid criticism our rollout is lagging behind that of other developed nations. 

About 8 percent of Kiwis have had two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has proven to be one of the most effective at stopping infection and serious illness. 

That places us around about 100th in the world - alongside Cuba, Peru, Kazakhstan and Japan. We rank near the bottom of the OECD group of wealthy countries however, well behind the UK (46 percent), Israel (60 percent) and the US (45 percent). 

Hipkins told The AM Show on Thursday the rollout has "gone as fast as it can given the availability of vaccines in New Zealand".

"If we could have got more vaccines into the country faster, then yes of course we could have gone faster. But ultimately supply has been the thing that's constrained that."

New Zealand initially ordered four different vaccines, but in March opted to switch to a Pfizer-only strategy after seeing its success overseas and the safety problems plaguing the AstraZeneca and J&J jabs. 

Though all the major vaccines have had a few reported cases of serious side-effects, the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna haven't had nearly as much trouble as some of the others.

"When we ordered the extra doses of that vaccine, Pfizer were very clear to us: 'You can have the extra doses, but you won't be able to get them until the second half of the year,'" said Hipkins.

"We  made that decision knowing that we were buying one of the best vaccines on the market. When we bought four vaccines, we didn't know at that point which ones were going to be the ones that would turn out to be effective and which wouldn't... so we hedged our bets. 

"We actually ended up with one of the best vaccines on the market. New Zealand, by the end of the year, will be very, very well-protected... I think it's a vaccine that was worth waiting for. "

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

While New Zealand's overall strategy has limited cases and deaths, and has been praised widely worldwide, the slow vaccine rollout does mean we're vulnerable to an outbreak without strict lockdown measures. Wellington is at level 2, which restricts gathering sizes but doesn't place limits on travel, after an Australian tourist tested positive for the virus on returning home. 

"If we do pick up extra cases as long as they're people who are isolating at home... even if we do see a few positive test results in that circumstance, then it's potentially still manageable," said Hipkins. "If we start to see a wide number of cases, then we may need to look at something further. But at this point, it's still very early days." 

So far testing of close contacts hasn't found any infections, but the tourist visited a number of places with "quite high densities of people for quite a long period of time", said Hipkins, so there will be more testing facilities in place from Thursday so everyone who might have been exposed can be checked. There were hours-long queues at testing locations on Wednesday. 

"There will be more testing station set up today. It takes a little bit of time to rally the staff, you've obviously got to pull people off their other duties... we don't have people standing around and waiting just in case we need extra testing capability."

Hipkins will give an update on the situation at 1pm with Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.