Winston Peters lashes out as COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins denies putting off Pfizer meeting in 2020

A communication from Pfizer on June 30 last year wanting to negotiate COVID-19 vaccine delivery was never brought to Cabinet, former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters claims. 

It comes after COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed in a written response to National MP Chris Bishop that the letter from Pfizer to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) last year wasn't acted on for six weeks. 

Hipkins confirmed that Dr Peter Crabtree, chair of the COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy Task Force, received the letter from Pfizer on June 30, 2020, but it wasn't until August 14 - six weeks later - that the Government met with Pfizer. 

Pfizer's letter reads: "We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021."

Bishop says it illustrates the Government's lack of momentum in securing vaccines. 

"This shows the disgracefully negligent way the Government procured vaccines in 2020. While other countries were signing bilateral advance purchase agreements with manufacturers, our Government was sitting on its hands.

"New Zealand didn't sign a heads of agreement with Pfizer until October, much later than other countries, and the final agreement was not concluded until just before Christmas.

"The first countries to sign a vaccine agreement were also the first countries to get the vaccines. New Zealand was one of the last thanks to our Government, and we were one of the last countries to receive our vaccines."

Peters, who is no longer in Government after NZ First didn't make it back to Parliament at the election, says the letter was "never brought to Cabinet". 

"If New Zealand First had known then that Pfizer was willing and able to begin negotiations we would immediately have urged funds be made available.

Winston Peters was Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Labour-NZ First coalition Government.
Winston Peters was Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Labour-NZ First coalition Government. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It is clear we had the capacity to be at the front of the queue for vaccinations and delivery, but this critical information was never shared with us at that time, and discussions about funding contracts did not occur until months later.

"It is inexcusable that this delay not only occurred but was first kept and delayed from Cabinet.  It has clearly caused the devastating flow-on effects we are seeing today in Auckland and around New Zealand."

Hipkins denies the Government held off meeting with Pfizer. 

"No, not at all. My understanding is that Pfizer sent out a letter in June that was sent to a number of countries. Discussions with Pfizer commenced not long after that," Hipkins told reporters on Wednesday. 

"The negotiations typically involve the signing of a confidential disclosure agreement. My understanding is that it was supplied by Pfizer to New Zealand's representatives towards the end of July and signed very quickly thereafter. 

National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop.
National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop. Photo credit: Getty Images

"Conversations were ongoing throughout that period so I don't think we were slow there. 

"It's also worth remembering that at that time, there were 200 different vaccines on offer, and everyone was trying to sell them to us, and at that point, we had to make some judgments about who we thought the most likely ones to be successful were.

"If you look at the four that we ended up purchasing, I think we made quite good decisions about which ones to go with. 

"But there were a number of companies at that point saying 'we've got a vaccine and you should buy some', and Pfizer was one of the ones we decided that we would buy, and it's proven to be a very good decision."

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

Hipkins denied the Government ran into supply issues due to the speed at which a deal with Pfizer was secured. The bulk of Pfizer vaccines didn't arrive in New Zealand until the end of this year, while other countries got them much sooner. Though, the situation in other countries was arguably more dire. 

"If you look at what we purchased initially, we purchased 750,000 courses of the vaccine, so 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. We did get access to those in accordance with the agreement that they entered into with us," Hipkins siad. 

"It's difficult to go crystal ball gazing back through time and say 'if we'd asked for 5 million courses of the vaccine at that time, would we have been able to get them earlier?' I don't know the answer to that and we will never know the answer to that. 

"We made the decision early this year to order those additional doses and then they were delivered and are keeping with the schedule that Pfizer agreed with us at that time."

More than half of the eligible population of New Zealand is now fully vaccinated and more than 80 percent have had at least one dose.