Depending on which part of the Ministry of Health's website you believe, New Zealand had somewhere between 85,000 and 110,000 doses of Covid vaccine available on Sunday. It's possible both numbers were wrong. Health Minister Chris Hipkins confessed on Tuesday that the number was down to less than 30,000.
Either way, vaccination continues only because the Government arranged for 100,000 doses to be diverted from the world's poorest countries in mid-June, something it wasn't keen to publicise and now says it doesn't plan to repeat.
It admits it may run out of vaccine in the next few days ahead of a planned delivery of 150,000 doses on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the Beehive insists this is all part of its "plan". In fact, Hipkins says the rollout is going "incredibly well" and ahead of the plan.
If you believe that, you have to believe he and his colleagues intended New Zealand's rollout would be the worst in the developed world.
Understandably, Jacinda Ardern is increasingly leaving poor Hipkins to front all things Covid. He has to stand next to Ashley Bloomfield, whose bureaucracy is performing no better than when overseeing the measles and influenza fiascos of 2019 and 2020, and the distribution of personal protection equipment at the start of Covid.
The vaccination mess will come out in the wash. The Government may look more transparent and trustworthy if it just admitted New Zealand is well behind the rest of the world, but that is mainly a political issue.
Sometime next year, New Zealand will have caught up with the likes of Canada, the UK, Israel, the US, Singapore and Europe.
More alarming is what appears to be a softening up process to convince us that New Zealand should never fully reopen the border and return to a pre-Covid normal.
Over the last 18 months, the Covid-19 modellers at the University of Auckland's Te Pūnaha Matatini have become prime ministerial favourites. These are the mathematicians whose analysis prompted the dithering Ardern to act in March last year when they advised that 80,000 New Zealanders could die from Covid without strict measures including the first big lockdown.
That estimate seems a bit high, now that cases even in countries unable or unwilling to adopt proper measures are still not much above 10 per cent of their populations, and given New Zealand's case fatality rate has turned out to be a relievingly low 0.95 per cent.
In retrospect, had New Zealand done absolutely nothing, we might by now have suffered more like 10,000 deaths. Still, we have Te Pūnaha Matatini to thank for spooking Ardern into belatedly cancelling the March 15 commemoration event, launching the level system and taking the big step to lock the country down.
Te Pūnaha Matatini's latest advice is that New Zealand may need a vaccination rate of 97 per cent before our border can fully reopen and life return to its mid-2019 state.
University of Otago academics say Te Pūnaha Matatini's numbers are plausible. Others dispute the 97 per cent estimate, but not Ardern or Hipkins — at least so far.
The problem, as they and Te Pūnaha Matatini well know, is that New Zealand has never achieved a 97 per cent vaccination rate for anything. Moreover, current restrictions on the Covid vaccine to those aged 12 and older mean we could never get above 85 per cent even if everyone else diligently has both Pfizer jabs.
It's possible the 97 per cent estimate is just a cunning PR ruse to encourage vaccination and not to be taken seriously. But it still leaves open the question of what the Government's actual criteria are for surrendering the draconian powers it justifiably assumed for itself last year.
Encouragingly, the Beehive says it is taking advice from a working group led by the University of Otago's Sir David Skegg, and that it hopes to outline in the next few months when and how we will reopen to the world.
Less encouragingly, it echoes Te Pūnaha Matatini in saying restrictions on travel and other fundamental liberties will need to continue even when the vaccination rate goes above 80 per cent.
Most disturbingly, the Prime Minister refuses to give any guarantee border controls and everyday life will return to the pre-Covid normal even once population immunity is achieved — whether that requires the near-universal vaccination rate Te Pūnaha Matatini suggests, or a more achievable one.
As one of the eternal laws of politics put it, nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme.
If anything like a 97 per cent vaccination rate is needed for population immunity, then the Prime Minister is soon going to have to level with us that we will have to prepare for Covid to become just one of those serious diseases we try to avoid but which kills some of us each year.
This will be the most difficult of those sometimes irritating "conversations" with the general public Ardern is so good at. Making it more difficult is that Ardern's very success at keeping Covid out of the country means New Zealanders fear the disease more than is evident in the rest of the world.
That might make the politically safe option to keep everything shut down permanently.
But maintaining a long-term zero-tolerance policy for Covid would be to suggest New Zealand should impose permanent border controls and restrictions on civil liberties to save the 500 people who usually die from influenza each year. No one advocates that.
It would thus be a complete abrogation of leadership and would be to treat us as children were Ardern to insist that the only level of Covid fatalities she would accept is zero — the way she did as a fresh-faced Opposition leader over suicide in September 2017, attracting some criticism from those who take that issue more seriously.
Since then, Ardern has become the undisputed and much-loved leader of the country, mainly through tragedy but also the odd triumph. After receiving Skegg's advice, Ardern has a responsibility to level with the public about roughly what annual hospitalisations and fatalities from Covid she — and we — should be prepared to accept. That may not be the 500 estimated to die from influenza each year or the 300-plus killed on the roads. It may be more like the few dozen who die from hepatitis. It would be dishonest for Ardern to claim it will be zero.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.