COVID-19: Judith Collins sets vaccine rollout target for reopening, Ardern says 'ambition is far beyond' what other countries have achieved

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she'll settle for nothing less than "best in the world" when it comes to what level of vaccine coverage would be required for opening the borders.

It's a much higher bar than National leader Judith Collins is setting, saying she'd set a target of 70-75 percent "to avoid future lockdowns and the cost that this imposes on every New Zealander".

New Zealand's vaccine rollout started later and slower than many other comparable countries, but has ramped up significantly in the past few weeks. Per capita, we're now vaccinating more people per day than the UK did at the height of its rollout earlier this year

How the world's vaccine rollouts are going.
How the world's vaccine rollouts are going. Photo credit: Our World in Data

Many countries however have seen vaccination rates taper off well below anything near even Collins' goal of 70 percent. In the past three months the US has seen its total coverage go from 40 percent to just over 50 percent, while Israel - which started before anyone else and at one point was vaccinating twice as fast as New Zealand is now - has basically levelled out at 63 percent. 

Coverage in the UK recently passed 60 percent, but the rate has been slowing since June. 

Vaccine coverage worldwide.
Vaccine coverage worldwide. Photo credit: Our World in Data

"The reason that we want to see everyone vaccinated is to keep them protected," Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"For all of those countries for whom you'd say that they've had somehow more success, I would say, what is your measure of success? We have kept New Zealanders safe and we will continue to do so while we have our full-scale ramp-up of our vaccination campaign. 

"But my ambition is far beyond the US' and the UK's rollouts. We need to have as many New Zealanders as possible vaccinated if we want to protect them against the kinds of outbreaks that  you are still seeing in both those countries." 

New Zealand has suffered only a fraction of the deaths and illness seen in the US, UK and many other countries, by eliminating community transmission of the virus. It's back now though, in the form of the highly infectious Delta variant. Modelling experts have said it could require coverage as high as 97 percent to stop outbreaks, if it's even possible at all

Despite the early success of its vaccine rollout, Israel's new cases are rising each day so quickly they'll likely overtake the speed of the January outbreak. Cases in the UK and US are also on the rise. 

"I want to go as high as possible," said Ardern, saying experts had recommended against setting an absolute target. 

 "It's much easier to communicate to people when you're in a situation where you want as many people as possible to turn out and get vaccinated, it's much easier to say, 'Here's our goal.' But I think - rightly so - those experts have said to us well actually you don't want to create a situation where people hear a number and say 'if I'm a part of the group that don't show up, that's fine'. It's not fine.

"The other reason is because actually even if you have a high number, it won't tell you whether you've reached enough young people, whether you've reached enough vulnerable people. 

"You can see in this particular outbreak for instance, if you had a really good solid number - say you had 80 percent of New Zealand vaccinated but you only had 60 percent of your 18- to 24-year-olds, you could still have a significant outbreak amongst that group in those locations that a really high risk… our goal should be top of the table. Let's do that. Let's seek to be the best in the world." 

Places with the highest coverage in the world are mostly small islands such as Iceland, Pitcairn, Malta and the Seychelles. Other nations with high coverage - about 70 percent or more - include Chile, Uruguay, UAE and Singapore. 

Ardern declined to say how many new cases had been picked up overnight, saying that would be revealed at the 1pm news conference. 

"To everyone I would say just expect it. We are. It will get worse before it gets better."