COVID-19: Dr Ayesha Verrall unable to provide any insight on data modelling for vaccination

The drive to get 90 percent of New Zealand's eligible population vaccinated against COVID-19 is stalling as the campaign approaches the stubborn last 10 percent - but the Government seemingly doesn't have a timeframe for when the target might be reached.

As of Monday, 77 percent of New Zealand's eligible population - those aged 12 and over - had received their first dose of the vaccine, roughly 65 percent of the total population. Forty-four percent had received both jabs - about 37 percent of the total population.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed on Monday the Government is aiming for 90 percent coverage among the eligible - around 76 percent of the total population - before looking to scrap stay-at-home orders and ease restrictions at the border.

In an interview with The AM Show on Wednesday, Associate Minister of Health, Dr Ayesha Verrall, seemed reluctant to provide any insight into the Government's data modelling - information that could provide an estimate for when the target might be achieved. 

But Verrall could not provide any clear timeframe, instead saying a vaccination rate of 90 percent could be reached "in a matter of weeks" - or it could "take much longer".

And the journey to 90 percent is not looking easy. Health officials have acknowledged the final 10 percent will be the most difficult to shift, largely comprising the hesitant, the reluctant, or the outright opposers. 

Just 12,641 people received their first dose on Monday, the lowest weekday total since mid-July. The average daily rate has plummeted in the last week following a surge in vaccinations at the height of Auckland's outbreak. Earlier this month, jabs were being administered at a rate of 55,000 a day - on Monday, 40,706 doses were administered in total, 28,065 of which were second doses.

Bookings have also slowed, with around 50,000 making an appointment for their vaccine over the past week.

As of Tuesday, 5,087,231 jabs had been administered nationwide, comprising 3.252 million first doses and 1.834 million second doses. 

Speaking to The AM Show, Dr Verrall said the Government does have modelling to track the progression of the vaccination campaign - but the data is not an indicator of when New Zealand might hit the golden 90 percent. 

When asked by host Ryan Bridge if the Government has an estimate for when the target might be achieved, Verrall said health officials do not have a concrete timeframe as progress is driven "by individual behaviour". 

"I think the key thing to understand here is that we've gone through a period of really rapid vaccination. We always knew the last 10 percent… would be the hardest to reach. There's parts of New Zealand that [don't] enjoy good contact with the health system - they're the parts our vaccination programme is reaching out to now," she said.

"There is modelling, but modelling isn't going to give the answer to something that's driven by individual behaviour. What we as the Government can control is how we're making that offer to people."

Bridge pushed back, arguing that if there is modelling available, it must provide some insight into when the vaccination target could be reached. 

"The modelling won't answer the question of whether someone who's unvaccinated is likely to take up the offer. If the rate of people choosing to get vaccinated was fast, it could be done in four weeks. If it's slow, it could be longer. The important thing for the Government to do is to reach out to people in an individualised way… some places we're going door-to-door," Verrall said. 

"Why can't you tell us?" Bridge persisted.

"There's no secret here. The issue is our model doesn't project whether or not we're going to get there… it would just be based on assumptions that may or may not prove to be right," she argued. 

"I think there's a big difference between modelling a disease and modelling the last bit of the vaccination campaign. I told you a range, it could be a matter of a few weeks if people take up the offer at a good rate - but it could be longer than that as well."

It follows stinging criticism from former Prime Minister Sir John Key, who accused the Government on Monday of utilising a strategy of "fear and hope" rather than a clear and definitive plan. 

"Fear and hope are not a strategy," Sir John told The AM Show. 

"We have had COVID-19 around for 18 months now - the Prime Minister gets up at a press conference in a self-congratulatory way and says, 'Oh, it's great, we locked you down really hard and fast'.

"What we need is some carrots and sticks in the system… We can't afford to keep doing what we're doing, that's the simple truth of it."

Ardern strongly rebutted that, saying "hope and luck" did not achieve the "lowest case numbers in the OECD, the lowest death rates, an economy that returned to pre-COVID levels, low unemployment even outside of a pandemic and, might I say, some the fewest restrictions that any country has experienced".

Dr Ayesa Verrall said the golden 90pct target could be achieved in "four weeks" - or it could take "much longer".
Dr Ayesa Verrall said the golden 90pct target could be achieved in "four weeks" - or it could take "much longer". Photo credit: Getty Images

Dr Verrall also indicated Auckland is on-track for alert level 2 next week, but said the Government is taking it "day-by-day".

"We've been dealing with this long tail that's proved quite difficult. We had a good day yesterday but we continue to track the case numbers really closely, looking for those unexpected cases, cases who weren't known contacts at the time. We take it day-by-day to make sure we're making the decision on the best available data."