Call it a ‘delay’ or call it a ‘clarification’ as you prefer, but the Government now says the Covid-19 vaccine is two months away for the general population.

In a move the Opposition has described as a “delay” but the Government has labelled a “clarification”, New Zealanders who aren’t in one of the priority groups for the Covid-19 vaccine will only be able to be immunised from the end of July.

Pages from the Ministry of Health and the Unite Against Covid-19 websites were quietly changed over the weekend to say that Group 4 would have access to the vaccine “from the end of July”. Previously, the pages said Group 4 could be vaccinated “from July”.

Chris Bishop, the National Party’s spokesperson for the Covid-19 response, told Newsroom that people would be upset with what he termed a “delay” to the general rollout.

“I think there will be unhappiness. I certainly know of a few people who were waiting for July and I don’t think, when they saw July, they thought it meant late July. Which, look, let’s face it, that probably means first week of August,” he said.

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“In reality, it’s a month’s delay. I think it’s sophistry to say that it’s just a clarification. You can call it a clarification if you’d like, but I’d call it what it is, which is a delay.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told Newsroom the programme “is New Zealand’s largest ever vaccine rollout and continues to scale up”.

The spokesperson didn’t specifically answer whether supply issues were to blame for the delay.

“The rollout to an even larger number of people in Group 4 is on track to commence in late July. As we progress our vaccination rollout plan, we need to be able to respond to external influences (such as supply) and balance these against workforce and other logistics,” they said.

“We’re now able to provide greater clarity regarding dates as a result of these factors, which led to the clarification around the timing of the Group 4 rollout (as communicated on the Ministry of Health and Covid-19 websites on 22 May).”

The spokesperson said the start of Group 4 vaccinations could also vary between District Health Boards (DHBs).

In comments to Newsroom, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins also warned different DHBs could see different start dates for the general rollout.

“As we have always said, there may be a period in the middle of the year (June-July) where we need to manage vaccine supply as we await our big shipments of the Pfizer vaccine which are due in the second half of the year,” he added.

“Overall, DHBs are still delivering vaccinations above their plans. We maintain that the most important part of New Zealand’s vaccination rollout is when it finishes, and we remain on track to offer vaccines to all New Zealanders by the end of the year.”

While the Government has never specified that Group 4 would receive vaccinations from the start of July, others seemed to be under the impression this was the case. For example, in his report on the vaccine rollout released last week, the Auditor-General indicated the general rollout was slated to begin at the start of the month.

“The immunisation programme is organised into a series of smaller activities, called sprints … The focus of each sprint is currently planned out to the start of July 2021, which is when the rollout moves to the general population. This is when all elements of the immunisation programme need to be ready,” he wrote.

The Ministry of Health’s own modelling for the rollout also indicates that new vaccinations will spike in July. More than 200,000 people would be vaccinated in the first full week of July, up from 128,000 the week before. Between June 28 and August 1, nearly as many New Zealanders will be vaccinated as in the six months prior, according to this data. This strongly implies the general roll-out was expected to kick into gear at the start of July.

Bishop said the Government was forced to delay the rollout because it had been too slow to vaccinate the priority groups – and that this was the second time it had done so.

“This has happened twice now. Towards the end of April, for Group 3, the Government very quietly changed the website to say that people would receive invitations for Group 3 vaccinations from late May. And now we find that actually, when it said July, it turns out that actually means late July,” he said.

“The reality is the rollout is slow. They’re surreptitiously moving the goalposts as we get closer and closer to the mass vaccination rollout. But they should be more up-front about it than just quietly changing websites without telling anyone.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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