The Government is urging people to get vaccinated against the common flu to avoid taking up hospital resources that could be used to treat Covid-19.
This year's vaccine campaign has been brought forward by two weeks, and the total 1.77 million vaccinations - 400,000 more than last year - will be prioritised for the elderly and most vulnerable, as well as health professionals in anticipation of the further spread of Covid-19
"While the flu vaccine will not protect you against Covid-19, it will help to 'flatten the curve' of demand on our hospitals this winter," Health Minister David Clark said this morning.
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From today, free flu vaccines will be available from GP clinics and selected pharmacies for people aged 65 and over, pregnant people, and those with chronic conditions.
From April 1, children with a chronic condition or a history of severe respiratory illness can get the vaccine, and everyone else can get it from April 13.
Healthcare workers will receive a free vaccine from their employer.
"The flu causes significant strain on our health system and more people vaccinating against flu will ensure health services are there for those who need them most," Clark said.
The Government also launched a $10 million public health campaign to educate New Zealanders about steps everyone can take to help prevent the spread of the virus.
"We are reminding people of the simple actions they can take to fight Covid-19 – washing and drying hands frequently, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, staying at home if you are sick and looking after each other especially the elderly and vulnerable," Clark said.
"We are in this for the long-haul."
Immunisation Advisory Service director Dr Nikki Turner said the release of the flu vaccine was positive although it wouldn't stop the coronavirus.
"The advantage for older people and people in high risk situations is not to prevent coronavirus - it's to keep people as healthy as possible which is very important."
Last year Turner advised those with low immunity they should hold off getting the flu vaccine till later in the season as they would have a weaker response to the vaccine, and it might wear off before the disease hit New Zealand in earnest.
But this year it's different, she says.
"At this stage my advice would be for everyone to get protection as soon as possible. It's unclear when New Zealand is going to have transmission of Covid-19. We've done really well so far; it doesn't look like there's been any community transmission of Covid-19 - but there will be.
"I would recommend all high risk people get protection as soon as they know their GP has flu vaccine in the fridge."
The strains of flu currently circulating were fairly standard, she said.
"I think the Northern Hemisphere has had a fairly average flu season but at this stage I would not predict anything."