COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins defends ordering first batch of Pfizer vaccines on January 29

Chris Hipkins is pushing back on criticism he was "slow to even order" COVID-19 vaccines amid revelations the first batch wasn't requested until late January. 

The COVID-19 Response Minister has revealed in written parliamentary questions from National MP Chris Bishop that the Government made its first purchase order with Pfizer on January 29, for 65,520 doses. 

A condition of New Zealand's agreement with Pfizer was that no product could be shipped until medicine regulator Medsafe had granted approval of the vaccine, but Bishops says that doesn't explain why so few doses were ordered, and why it took so long to get approval. 

"New Zealand's advance purchase agreement with Pfizer was signed on 12 October and it was the first vaccine agreement we signed. The Government should've then immediately ordered as many doses as possible and moved as quickly as possible to approve the vaccine use in New Zealand," Bishop says. 

"Pfizer was approved in the UK on December 2 and at the time it was approved in New Zealand on February 3, it had been approved in more than 50 countries."

But Hipkins says the first batch was just the starting point, and since then, the delivery orders have been ramping up. Earlier this week, for example, Pfizer delivered more than 370,000 doses - the largest to date. 

"It's all around a negotiated quantity with the vaccination provider, with the manufacturer... that we will take delivery of this quantity at this given date," Hipkins told reporters on Wednesday. 

"We weren't able to put in an order for that first delivery until we knew that we were getting Medsafe approval. Once we were confident of that, a few days before that, we got the order in so that we could take the delivery fairly soon after the approval was officially given.

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

"You'll see that since that point, our quantities of deliveries have continued to increase regularly since that time."

The latest vaccine update shows District Health Boards (DHBs) are 5 percent ahead of plans. More than 1.5 million people have received a COVID-19 jab in New Zealand, an increase of 148,000 doses on last week. More than 628,000 have received a second dose, meaning they are fully vaccinated. 

But Bishop has frequently highlighted how New Zealand is still trailing the rest of the world when it comes to vaccine rollout. He posted a graph showing New Zealand at the bottom of a list of nations comparing doses per 100 people. 

New Zealand's vaccine rollout is the slowest in the developed world, with just 29.12 doses per 100 people administered, well behind Australia with 39.49, Colombia with 46.16 and Turkey with 75.21.

"Just over 10 percent of our population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, putting us at serious risk of an outbreak of community transmission if the Delta strain makes it across the border and into the community," Bishop says. 

New Zealand remains one of very few countries around the world with no COVID-19 in the community, however, which has enabled life to continue relatively normally; meanwhile more than half of Australians are in lockdown, and the UK is recording more than 50,000 cases a day. 

The Government has argued that the relatively slow vaccine rollout in New Zealand reflects the less than dire need for vaccines, compared to countries where the coronavirus is rampant and out of control. 

National MP Chris Bishop.
National MP Chris Bishop. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

But Bishop warns we cannot be complacent, because all it would take is the more transmissible Delta variant to slip through managed isolation and into the community, and the unvaccinated population would be vulnerable. 

"New Zealanders are getting tired of the excuses Labour is making about our slow vaccine rollout. They just want to be vaccinated."

The vaccine rollout to the generation population will begin on July 28, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed last month, and it will be staggered in age cohorts. 

From August 11, Kiwis aged 50 and over will be invited to get vaccinated. From there, the rollout is "indicative" and it's "broadly" expected those aged 45 and over will be invited to have a jab from late August. 

Everyone else will be vaccinated from October.