COVID-19: Expert urges vaccine prioritisation of all essential workers in groups 3 and 4

An expert is warning the Government to urgently prioritise the vaccination of essential workers in Group 3 and 4 in the event of a future outbreak of COVID-19.

It comes after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a pathway out of New Zealand's border closures, beginning in 2022. Part of the Government's plan involves speeding up the vaccination process by bringing forward the eligibility dates for the remaining groups in the rollout.

From August 13, people aged 50 and over will be eligible, with those aged 40 and over able to come forward for vaccination on August 18. Vaccinations for New Zealanders aged 30 and over will open on August 25, and from September 1, all eligible ages will be able to get the jab.

As well as shifting the dates forward, Ardern announced from Thursday the Government will allow a six-week period between doses, meaning more people can be at least partially vaccinated by the end of the year.

Professor Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago's Department of Public Health, says while it's "particularly good" to extend the time between doses to six weeks, there are still gaps in the national response.

"For example, there should now be urgent prioritisation of all essential workers for vaccination in groups 3 and 4 (i.e., supermarket workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, etc)," he says.

"The lack of vaccination of such workers has been one of the reasons that Sydney is currently struggling with its COVID-19 outbreak."

He also believes New Zealand should be placing more importance on the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds, and this can be done effectively in schools.

Professor Michael Plank, of Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury, says while it's good news that everyone over 16 years old will soon be eligible to book their vaccine, the question remains whether younger teenagers will also be able to receive their jabs in the near future.

"A crucial question is whether border relaxation will happen before we have vaccinated children under 16. If it does, we will almost certainly see outbreaks spreading through schools," he says.

"Whether to vaccinate children is a complex question and needs a careful analysis of risks and benefits. This should take into account the short and long term health impacts of infection, as well as the disruptions of school closures and absences, that will occur if we do not allow children to be vaccinated."

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

Also in her announcement on Thursday, Ardern said New Zealand will soften its border restrictions next year based on an individual risk-based model for travellers.

This will centre on classifying new arrivals into three categories: low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk. Low-risk travellers will be allowed in without quarantine, however they must be fully vaccinated and coming from low-risk countries. These countries have not yet been named.

Medium-risk travellers would be subject to either self-isolation or slightly reduced managed isolation and quarantine, as they would be arriving from medium-risk countries.

In preparation for this category, the Government will be running a self-isolation pilot programme in the coming months to test its safety.

Despite all that needs to be done before the border restrictions can soften, Ardern said earlier on Thursday that New Zealand is in a strong position and elimination is still our strategy.

"We don't have COVID in the community and our economy is more open than most."

She added opening the borders will protect the gains New Zealand has won and reconnect our economy with the rest of the world.