National’s Chris Bishop is fully vaccinated and proud of it. It’s why his biggest regret since taking on the Covid Response portfolio is potentially fuelling vaccine hesitancy.

In May the National Party hit headlines questioning whether vaccinators were “going beyond what has been approved’’ for the number of doses contained in each Pfizer vial.

The drug company’s own guidelines said up to six doses were able to be extracted, but with the help of new needles vaccinators were getting a full extra dose.

Despite assurances from the Director-General of Health, Bishop did several interviews at the time raising the prospect that Kiwis weren’t getting the full dose.

“I had good intel to say it was a bit odd, but in retrospect I’m a bit worried it could be seen as contributing towards vaccine hesitancy, because people would say ‘I’m not going to get vaccinated if they’re getting seven doses out of a vial … that might be dodgy and I’m not getting my full jab’.

“So, I regret pushing that out there, because it’s pretty clear we’ve got the right needle and nurses who know what they’re doing,’’ he told Newsroom.

“It’s something I should have thought through properly.’’

The saying goes that Opposition leader is the toughest job in politics.

But in a global pandemic, with the country in lockdown and the polls still pointing towards Labour being trusted with the Covid Response, Bishop could be forgiven for wondering if he has the second toughest job in Parliament.

“It’s something I should have thought through properly.’’ – Chris Bishop

Until a couple of weeks ago he was handling the Covid Response while simultaneously overseeing his party’s strategy in Parliament as shadow leader of the House.

In a reshuffle that came out of nowhere, dropping in journalists’ inboxes on a Saturday morning in the middle of nationwide lockdown, Bishop was unceremoniously dumped as shadow leader.

The public line is that he has a big workload and has been given time to concentrate on Covid, but the behind-the-scenes speculation is that leader Judith Collins was punishing him for not toeing the party line on voting against the first reading of the ban on gay conversion therapy.

Leader Judith Collins and Covid Response spokesperson Chris Bishop have been fronting press conferences together at Parliament while the House has been sitting.
Photo: Robert Kitchin/Pool photo

Bishop has perfected his response to whether he asked to keep shadow leader.

“It’s the leader’s call and I’m very comfortable just concentrating on Covid,” he told Newsroom.

A masterclass in not answering the question.

Bishop acknowledges his counterpart, Covid Response Minister and Leader of the House Chris Hipkins, is doing both jobs but says he has a ministry and more staff behind him.

Hipkins was asked to comment on Bishop’s demotion on Wednesday and whether he would be better placed concentrating on being Covid Response Minister.

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you focus your time and energy onto your work, rather than fighting with your colleagues,’’ Hipkins shot back with a grin.

The problem for Bishop is Hipkins made that remark at a 1pm press conference, ironically standing next to the politically neutral Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and with most of the nation tuned in watching or listening at home.

It’s an unlevel playing field of epic proportions and a constant grapple for the Opposition – and part of the reason Collins insisted on returning to Parliament to have access to the press gallery.

When Newsroom sat down with Bishop this week it was a half hour gap slotted between a press conference with his leader Judith Collins at Parliament and the 1pm press conference by the Prime Minister and Bloomfield.

Bishop keeps close tabs on those daily updates, mindful that information revealed in them can either help or hinder his party in Question Time at 2pm.

There are no cafes open at Parliament and very few nearby, but Bishop had managed to find a sausage roll and checked if it was okay to eat it while doing the interview.

He might not have the people power in his office that Hipkins does, but it turns out they’re both secretly fuelled by the same pastry and protein combo.

Vaccines for all

The vaccination rollout has been under an intense spotlight for months, in particular the speed in which it has been delivered, and why Māori and Pasifika rates are so far behind that of Pākehā New Zealanders.

In an interview with Newsroom last week, Associate Health Minister for Māori, Peeni Henare, said the message that vaccines were available for Māori since early this year failed to reach the community.

He said he was pushing for incentives for Māori to get vaccinated and on Thursday the Government announced $24 million for Māori health providers to help with the rollout, including targeted incentives.

Bishop said National’s position is that vaccinators and communities should do whatever it takes to get jabs in arms.

“Just work with people on the ground who know their own communities,’’ he said.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve got to get Māori vaccination rates up – not only from an equity point of view but a reconnecting to the world point of view.

“If you’ve got 75 percent of Pākehā vaccinated but only 40 percent of the Māori population, that’s a real problem.’’

“I’ve been surprised they haven’t made more use of sports stars and leaders in the communities to model the fact they’re getting the vaccine.’’ – Chris Bishop

Bishop said he’s concerned the Government isn’t using its Māori and Pacific ministers and role models on the national stage to get the message out from trusted voices and faces.

“Thank God for Māori TV, cos they’re the only ones who ask the critical questions – alongside Newsroom – about it. It’s an issue I’ve been worried about for a while.’’

“I’ve got Official Information Act documents from February and March this year where senior Māori health practitioners raise serious concerns about the rollout and how it’s not going to deliver for Māori and all their concerns have borne out.’’

He said comments made by Auckland councillor Efeso Collins about the rollout being an “ivory tower approach’’ have also been valid.

“I’ve been surprised they haven’t made more use of sports stars and leaders in the communities to model the fact they’re getting the vaccine.’’

Bishop said Bloomfield told him in March those sorts of programmes were “in train’’ but still haven’t happened.

“I’m not going to pretend I’m au fait enough with Māori youth culture to know who the role models are, but people who are respected in the community to get out and get vaccinated and tell people to get vaccinated,’’ he said.

On Tuesday, ACT leader David Seymour was blasted for publicly releasing an access code for Māori vaccination prioritisation.

His critics accused him of “white privilege’’ and of ignoring the negative health statistics Māori are overwhelmingly represented in.

Bishop said he didn’t understand what Seymour was doing by releasing the access code, and he needed to “account for that himself’’.

“But I’m sure he would agree, as we do, that we need to get more Māori and Pasifika vaccinated.

“The single greatest thing any New Zealander can do right now is go and get vaccinated; I cannot stress how important that is,’’ Bishop said.

“The vaccines are the single greatest investment this Government, or indeed any government, will make in the economy.’’

Bishop said it allows New Zealanders overseas to return, it allows New Zealanders already here to reconnect with the world and will put an end to long lockdowns for Auckland.

The Pfizer debate

Whether the Government tried to get more vaccines from Pfizer to help with the increased demand since Delta hit has been a contentious debate between the Government and the Opposition.

Bishop says ministers “didn’t even bother to ask Pfizer if they could pay extra to get more supply.

“Chris Hipkins kept saying it was not possible, but how do you know if you don’t ask? The Government is on record saying they didn’t ask.’’

Bishop also doesn’t buy the argument from the Government that New Zealand waited its turn for vaccines to ensure countries who needed it more were first in line.

“The Government doesn’t believe that argument on its own rhetoric. They’re saying other countries needed it more than we did so it’s fine to be last in the world while simultaneously saying the vaccine rollout is going really well.’’

“If it’s true that the moral thing to do is for New Zealand to be second to last in the OECD, then why not give away all our vaccines now and hand them over to the developing world? There’s plenty of African countries not rolling out the vaccine, on their own rhetoric that would be the moral thing to do but we’re not doing that.’’

Bishop says it’s an “excuse for why we’re so slow’’ but isn’t backed up by logic.

And if the Prime Minister announces a deal to get more vaccines in the coming weeks to keep up with demand, then Bishop questions why that couldn’t have been done in March.

“If it’s possible to get more vaccine in September 2021, then why was it not possible in March? If we got to 60 percent coverage in May rather than in the next few weeks, how much shorter would this lockdown have been?’’

Being prepared for Delta’s arrival

Bishop says it’s important, even in Opposition, to give credit where it’s due to the Government.

“I think they’ve done a pretty good job overall with Covid, but they’ve slipped into complacency and self-congratulation mode at the expense of preparation.

“We sat back and said, ‘We’re the best in the world, we’ve got freedoms that nobody else has, Six60 is playing at Eden Park and it’s so amazing’ (if you like Six60, which apparently people do)’’.

Chris Bishop says there’s a difference between criticising the pace of the rollout and supporting the science and encouraging people to get vaccinated. Photo: Robert Kitchin/Pool photo

Bishop says Delta arrived in MIQ in early April and he can’t see the evidence that work has been done to prepare for its inevitable spread in the community.

“The PM likes to say, ‘We were last to get Delta so we could be prepared’, but where’s the evidence that New Zealand actually spent the time being the last to get Delta, looking overseas and saying, ‘You know what, maybe we need to change up our approach here’,’’ he said.

There have been four reviews into the country’s contact tracing system and its ability to scale up in a crisis and Bishop says he’s staggered by the Ministry of Health’s reluctance to prepare for that.

“I know the ministry denies that now, but it’s there in black and white as to what the experts think.’’

Bishop also points to gaps in saliva testing, failure to audit MIQ facilities for their Delta-preparedness and a lack of nursing capacity.

He says these were problems a year ago and now the country is in a Delta outbreak, the health and border systems are struggling to keep up.

Bishop expects he will get pushback for these sorts of observations – his inbox is full of all sorts of criticism, and praise.

“It’s hard, I won’t lie. I open my inbox and I get people saying I need to get stuck into the Government and criticise them and then the next email is someone who has heard something I’ve said on Morning Report and they’re saying I’m so negative.’’

While trying to walk the line between giving credit where it’s due and constructive criticism, Bishop says he’s constantly surprised by what people say to him online, that they’d never say in person.

“I’ve tried to be pretty responsible and I’m a massive supporter of the vaccination rollout and I’ve gone out of my way to support it.’’

Bishop says there’s a difference between criticising the pace of the rollout and supporting the science and encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“Everything I say around the rollout is designed to make it better.’’

He’s not the minister, and he’s not in Government, but Bishop says it’s a privilege to play a role – albeit from Opposition – in “shaping the direction of our economy and society for the next few years’’.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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