New Zealand’s first Covid-19 vaccines will arrive in the country ahead of schedule in a win for the government, which has been criticised for being too slow to procure them.
In a surprise announcement on Friday, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said hundreds of thousands of vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would be arriving early, and vaccinations for border staff would begin next Saturday.
Originally the government had said the vaccines were expected to arrive at the end of March.
“Government representatives have been in conversations with Pfizer on a constant basis for the last few weeks. We appreciate the effort the company has gone to to deliver the first instalment earlier than originally anticipated,” Ardern said.
“Last year we indicated the vaccine would arrive in quarter two, and earlier this year we updated that to quarter one. It’s pleasing to be receiving doses this early in quarter one.”
Ardern said vaccinating border workers would be the first priority, a process that would take two to three weeks. This would be followed by the vaccination of their household contacts, then health care and essential workers and those most at risk from Covid-19 in the second quarter.
“Vaccination of the wider population [will begin] in the second half of the year,” Ardern said, and was expected to take six months to a year. The vaccine would be free for all New Zealanders.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine requires two doses and must be stored at -70C.
The Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, said the first doses of the vaccine would be administered within days of the vaccine arriving in the country.
“On arrival, the vaccine must be independently tested for quality assurance, which is another important safety check. The doses will then be formally released to start the first phase of the vaccination programme,” Hipkins said.
“At this stage, we are expecting to start offering the vaccine to our border and MIQ workers on 20 February, with the first immunisations given out to those working in the Auckland region,” Chris Hipkins said.
Mass vaccination programmes are already well underway in the US, the UK and many parts of Europe, leading some to question why New Zealand has had to wait so long.
Ardern has repeatedly said that the pandemic is taking a far worse toll in other parts of the world, and as New Zealand has only a tiny number of active cases held in isolation, it is right that the country wait its turn, giving countries in dire health crises first dibs.
New Zealand has ordered 15m courses of Covid-19 vaccine from four different providers. With a population of only 5 million, some of the vaccines will be sent to countries in the Pacific, and NZ$75m in aid will be included to help Pacific countries protect their vulnerable populations.
The prime minister said it was the government’s policy to purchase multiple types of vaccine as they progressed through the final trial stages, to ensure options were successful.
The government will launch a major public health campaign encouraging Kiwis to get the shot, and Ardern has said the borders will remain closed until the nation is “vaccinated and protected” – likely for all of 2021.
“I have said 2021 is the year of the vaccine,” Ardern said.
“It’s a full-year programme we have only just begun. We’re not in a race to be first, but to ensure safe and timely access to vaccines for all New Zealanders.”