Coronavirus: Peeni Henare explains why there's no vaccine target for Māori, says Cabinet 'had to draw a line in the sand'

The Associate Minister of Health says he's not "giving up" on lifting Māori vaccination rates ahead of lifting of restrictions as "some others have".

With the Prime Minister saying she's confident Auckland will be out of lockdown by Christmas, the unvaccinated are being urged to get their jabs as soon as possible to protect them and their whanau from COVID-19.

The Government's new 'traffic light' system will kick in as regions hit the 90 percent double-dose target. In addition to having extra protection against infection and illness, the vaccinated will also enjoy more freedoms than those who resist.

While the details of the new system were only unveiled on Friday, it's long been signalled vaccines would play a big part in the post-lockdown response to COVID-19. But that hasn't worked for some, with parts of the country - and Māori - lagging well behind.

Peeni Henare told Newshub Nation on Saturday challenges with funding and resourcing in low-vaccinated areas such as Northland had been addressed, but it was "interesting" that many still haven't got their shots.

"We have vaccinated, for the most part, the vast majority of our people who were we're probably going to say yes to the vaccine anyway - which means that as we get to those who are still hesitant, it takes longer to make sure that they can come forward for the vaccine. And that's the good work that our providers are doing, and that's why we want to continue this."

Some experts had called for tough restrictions to stay in place until Māori vaccination rates were up with the rest of the country.  

Nationwide 86 percent of Kiwis aged 12-plus had their first dose and 69 their second, but just 68 percent eligible Māori have had their first dose and 47 percent their second. In some pockets, such as Whangārei's Otangarei, double-dose coverage is in the 30s, leaving large swathes of the population unprotected in the event of an outbreak.

"We will have to deal with the carnage," local nurse Margaret Hand told Newshub Nation. "We will have to deal with those that can't get admitted into hospitals because the hospital beds are too full. We've got really limited ICU beds, we've got limited... ventilators. It'll be tragedy, I think. We don't want to see it but I think in reality, we will see it."

Henare said they spoke to Māori leaders about the vaccination targets.

"A number of them have been asking us to set a target. And what we knew was that if we did that too early, people turn against  those who haven't been vaccinated yet, and that's why we didn't want to vilify those who were yet to be vaccinated. 

"Yes, there are those who are anti-vax, but there are still a large proportion of our community who are just hesitant. And if we vilify them, then I'm afraid that we would have lost them in this challenge. So that's why we didn't do that."

Peeni Henare.
Peeni Henare. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

He said some iwi leaders had demanded 100 percent coverage for Māori before any lifting of restrictions. 

"We discussed this in Cabinet... We discussed a whole heap of conversations and consultation that we had right across the country, beyond iwi chairs, into the Māori health providers that I've been working with since the beginning of the year."

Newshub Nation host Simon Shepherd asked Henare if he was concerned that many Māori will become "second-class citizens" with fewer rights, thanks to their lack of vaccination.

"We had to draw a line in the sand at some point in time and look towards moving into the future," replied Henare. "I'm confident that even in alert levels 2 and 3, Māori have been able to manage, for example, funerals etc on their own marae. I believe the same in the new system.

"What we're saying, though, is to give yourselves and your community the most protection, we need you to be vaccinated. If you are not, then, of course, that means we've got to put in health restrictions to keep the rest of the community safe. That's the choice they're going to have to make, and like I said, our job is to make it available to everybody.

"But we need to be sure and clear that we're moving into the future, and you know what? We've heard from a lot of Māori who want us to move on, who want to be able to have those freedoms again, who want to connect with their families over summer and Christmas. So therefore, the point to our whānau is get vaccinated."

Considering a large percentage of Māori are young, and either aren't eligible for the vaccine or statistically less likely to show up and get it, Shepherd put it to Henare that only about 50 percent of all Māori might be vaccinated when restrictions are lifted.

"This is what I'm going to say to those whanau who have young tamariki who are unable to be vaccinated right now, I encourage you to get vaccinated so that you can continue to protect your tamariki. We expect the same when we send our tamariki to school. We have already made the call to make sure that teachers are vaccinated to protect them. We are now asking whānau to be vaccinated…

"It's crucial that people should get vaccinated. And that is my message to our whanau. If you want to have a Christmas, if you want to have summer with your whānau, then we need you to get vaccinated."

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