Ministers and officials have flagged the possibility the vaccine rollout could falter in June – despite engineering it to avoid that very thing
As of Sunday evening, New Zealand had around 378,000 Pfizer vaccines available for use. That surged to more than 400,000 with the delivery of 60,840 doses a few days later.
This marked only the second week that vaccine stocks had fallen since the rollout began. Two weeks ago, we had more than 450,000 unused doses in frozen storage.
Since the start of the rollout, we have been importing vaccines in batches of 49,000 to 78,000 doses a week but vaccinating far fewer people over the same period of time. That isn’t a result of lack of resourcing (only about a quarter of the trained vaccinators have been active at any given time). Instead, it was a deliberate decision by the Government to slow the rollout in order to avoid running out of stocks.
“We need to gradually and sustainably scale up the number of doses delivered over time so that we don’t need to unroll the vaccination programme we are rolling out,” Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said in April.
Jacinda Ardern made the same point during a speech to Business New Zealand on Thursday, saying, “Throughout the rollout of the vaccine programme, our approach has been to match our vaccination rate with available supply. We wanted to avoid a position where we build capability, infrastructure and systems only to have to turn it off because we run out of vaccines.”
Despite this, the Government is now flagging the possibility that we may run out of vaccines in June, before much larger shipments of Pfizer doses start to arrive on our shores.
On Wednesday, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the fact some DHBs were outperforming their targets “may mean that towards the end of June, we have to slow down for a little bit. We’re not talking about slowing down for a long time. It may be days, it may be a week or two before we start to see big deliveries coming in.”
Ardern went further in her comments on Thursday, saying, “I should note, that even with planning in place, there is some risk that we’ll have a period between shipments when we run low, or out of vaccine temporarily.
“If this does happen, it would be prior to the larger deliveries we are expecting in July, but does speak to the difficulty in scaling up smoothly and managing eligibility, demand and supply.”
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield didn’t answer whether he had new information indicating New Zealand may run out of supply in the coming weeks, when asked about the Prime Minister’s comments on Thursday.
“The good thing is our DHBs are not just achieving but overall slightly exceeding the targets they had set themselves,” he said.
“What the PM and the minister are saying, and I agree of course, is we would rather that, if we had to just slow things down for a week or two, that we were doing that, rather than sitting with vaccine in the freezer and just waiting. Actually, we want the vaccine in peoples’ arms, that’s where it’s most useful.
“The team’s working very closely with the District Health Boards – daily discussions really – just to get the balance right. Our hope is we get through, supply and demand match really well.”
In her speech to Business NZ on Thursday, Ardern also revealed that officials were working to figure out whether vaccinated people might be allowed to enter New Zealand despite current border restrictions.
Bloomfield’s own comments came as part of a vaccine briefing, in which he said that baseline public health restrictions may need to be raised as the borders open. Even as New Zealand opens to other low-risk countries, we may need to set our basic restrictions at a Level 2.5, in which mask use is more widespread and people are not able to serve themselves in hospitality settings, for example.
“It may well be that we need to be more at a 2.5 level, as our baseline, alongside vaccination, as part of the protections we need in place routinely to be able to open the border. We’re putting some thinking into that.”