Government went against advice to limit COVID-19 vaccine passes to high-risk events or jeopardise social cohesion

The Government went further than official advice to keep COVID-19 vaccine passes "narrow in scope" and only apply to high-risk events, documents show. 

In a briefing paper dated September 17 to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, officials provided three options for the domestic use of vaccine certificates (CVCs).

The first option, A, was the wide application of vaccination certificates, which "could be for customers and/or workers of bars, restaurants, cafes and other venues/events". 

The second option, B, was the targeted application of vaccine passes for high-risk events and venues, such as "large gatherings/events held outdoors and indoors, particularly during the summer season". 

The third option, C, was no government requirement for vaccine passes, and to instead let the private sector decide who can access their premises. It's noted the Government could play a role in providing verification.

The document, released on Friday, shows the Government went further than the official advice, by going for option A, evident by the requirement for widespread use of vaccine passes in the new traffic light system. 

Officials recommended option B - only applying vaccination passes to high-risk large events and venues; not bars, restaurants and cafes. 

"Officials initially consider that the targeted application of vaccine certificates to high-risk events and venues (Option B) provides the best balance of risk mitigation, public acceptability and feasibility to implement as a priority step," the document says. 

Government went against advice to limit COVID-19 vaccine passes to high-risk events or jeopardise social cohesion

The Government was warned that going too far with vaccine certificates would risk social cohesion, due to restrictions on the unvaccinated. 

"There is a risk that restrictions on where unvaccinated people may go could negatively impact the trust that has been built around the COVID-19 vaccination rollout and to address vaccine hesitancy that is linked to a wider mistrust of the health system."

In another document dated September 24, similar concerns were raised by officials about COVID-19 vaccine certificates. 

"There are issues around maintaining social licence over the management of the pandemic and social cohesion. Over time, this measure may no longer be justifiable as vaccination rates increase and the public health rationale becomes diminished."

"Public health advice is that CVCs should be used as a temporary requirement for entry to large high-risk events or venues to reduce the risk of large outbreaks and community spread and should be reviewed in relation to vaccination rates."

"Experience overseas demonstrates the risk of loss of social license if a CVC is applied too broadly, in a way that is seen as interfering too much in day-to-day affairs. It also has the potential to deny access to everyday services to people who are legally exercising their right to not be vaccinated. For this reason officials propose that any mandatory requirements are narrow in scope."

Vaccination helps to reduce the likelihood of infection and hospitalisation, data released by the Ministry of Health shows

While vaccine passes are required to enter hospitality venues and other close contact businesses like gyms and hairdressers, vaccine certificates cannot be asked for at supermarkets, pharmacies, dairies or petrol stations.

The latest Newshub-Reid Research poll found that the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders - 73 percent - support vaccine certificates, while 20 percent didn't agree and 6 percent didn't know. 

Nearly 90 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated - but there are signs of division. 

Frustration over COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates culminated in a march of approximately 2000 people last month from Wellington CBD to Parliament. Another protest is planned for next week. 

Ardern was met with a group of about 30 anti-vaccination protesters during her recent visit to Hamilton, with signs saying "coercion is not consent" and "Make Ardern Go Away". 

It was a familiar scene. Ardern's press conference in Northland was cut short after a man continuously disrupted her, with claims about the vaccine not working. Ardern was also forced to cancel vaccine clinic visits in Whanganui, Hunterville and Gisborne.  

A few weeks later, Labour MP Kieran McAnulty was confronted by an anti-vaxxer who accused the Government of genocide, while Hipkins revealed his electorate office had been "the target of repeated and ongoing attacks". 

Ardern assured the unvaccinated last month: "We are still a team."

"The COVID Protection Framework, what we've designed, helps everyone. It helps keep everyone safe. And whilst we will continue to advocate that everyone gets vaccinated, because it is the best protection we can provide, the framework is also designed to keep people who aren't vaccinated, safe as well."