COVID-19: Vaccination 'not a magic bullet', other forms of protection will still be needed - Jacinda Ardern

Vaccination will not be a "magic bullet" in New Zealand's arsenal against COVID-19, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as countries with high rates of immunisation continue to grapple with outbreaks of the virus.

New Zealand's vaccination rate has become a point of contention, with the Government insisting the staggered rollout is meeting its targets despite public pushback against the sluggish progress. According to the Ministry of Health, only 381,517 New Zealanders had received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as of June 22 - meaning just 7.76 percent of the population is fully protected against the virus. According to the data, 637,847 have had their first jab - roughly 13 percent. 

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is steamrolling ahead with its immunisation campaign. As of June 26, 32,460,191 of its residents have received both jabs - meaning more than 61 percent of the adult population is fully vaccinated. About 84 percent of adults in the UK have had their first dose, according to the government's official statistics.

But health officials have consistently denied that vaccinations are lagging behind other developed nations, with COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins reiterating the rollout is going "as fast as it can". However, New Zealand is currently ranked around 100th in the world, and is sitting near the bottom in the OECD for its number of vaccinations - well behind the UK, Israel and the US.

But Ardern says a high rate of vaccination is not conducive to relaxed restrictions and a return to pre-pandemic normality - as evidenced by the UK, a country that saw 104,052 people test positive for the virus in the seven days between June 21 and June 27.

Speaking to The AM Show on Monday morning, Ardern was grilled by host Duncan Garner as to whether New Zealand's vaccination rollout was too slow compared to that of other nations. 

"If we were higher, someone else would be lower. When you look around the world, you're hard-pressed to find anyone in a  better position than us in terms of death rate. We have to take that into account," she argued. 

Ardern said officials are currently working to determine the point at which New Zealand could be safe from a future outbreak without needing to impose a restrictive lockdown to curb the spread. She noted once a certain percentage of the population has been fully vaccinated, the Government may shift away from harsher restrictions. Until that point, it will continue to rely on its existing framework to contain potential transmission.

"Once we've got good levels of vaccination in New Zealand, you'll see us vary up the way we do things. My goal is to get good levels of vaccination so we hopefully won't have to rely on lockdowns, but we will still do things like contact tracing and isolation," she told The AM Show.

PM Ardern says vaccination is not a magic bullet against the virus and more measures will need to be maintained to ensure NZ's continued protection against future outbreaks.
PM Ardern says vaccination is not a magic bullet against the virus and more measures will need to be maintained to ensure NZ's continued protection against future outbreaks. Photo credit: Newshub

Last week, alarm bells rang after an Australian man who had travelled throughout Wellington tested positive upon his return to Sydney. It has been confirmed the man is infected with the highly infectious Delta variant, which is more transmissible than other strains and potentially more harmful than the original virus and its variants.

It's understood the man was infectious while in the country, prompting the Government to take a precautionary approach and plunge the capital under alert level 2 of the COVID-19 response - restrictions were extended for an additional 48 hours on Sunday. 

But as the Government continues to rely on gathering caps and social distancing, Ardern made it clear increased levels of vaccination will not serve as the "magic bullet" in New Zealand's defence against the virus.

"It's not a magic bullet. The person who brought COVID to Wellington was partially vaccinated. It is not a magic bullet - look at the UK. If we ever take a position that [vaccination] is going to solve all of our problems, we're going to find ourselves in a difficult [situation]."

Although the jab will provide more options moving forward, the Government will continue to implement a range of measures to ensure New Zealand's continued success at keeping COVID-19 out of the community, she said.

"Once we are vaccinated, we've got more options. We're less likely to have things like lockdowns. It means we've got more options at our border.

"Countries around the world, unless you have very high rates of vaccination, will continue to see outbreaks unless you have some other form of protection."

Only about 8 percent of New Zealand's population is fully vaccinated.
Only about 8 percent of New Zealand's population is fully vaccinated. Photo credit: Getty Images

In regards to Wellington, the Prime Minister agreed it appears the capital may have dodged a bullet - but reiterated that maintaining a cautious approach is the right way forward. 

"I'll be keeping an eye on our testing rates in Wellington… we're wanting to test all those people who were at sites of interest, but if you're feeling unwell, get a test," she said. 

Currently, no close contacts of the Sydney man - aside from his wife - have tested positive for COVID-19 following his visit to Wellington from June 19 to June 21. Multiple locations of interest have been identified, which refer to sites where transmission may have occurred. Testing is ongoing and a number of results are still pending.