A consensus is emerging that the Government has generally managed the Covid crisis very well over the last 18 months, but it has dropped the ball when it comes to the crucial vaccine rollout.
This was nicely encapsulated in opinion polling last week showing that while 69 per cent of the public are positive about the Government's overall management, only 32 per cent are positive about the vaccination programme – see Toby Manhire's What does NZ think of the vaccine rollout?
As Manhire notes, in its vaccine rollout New Zealand "is demonstrably slow in global terms, sitting at the foot of the OECD table, and currently ranked around 120th in the world. It's a far cry, says the opposition, from assurances that New Zealand would be 'at the front of the queue'".
It seems that the Government's promise of being "front of queue" has been its biggest mistake in Covid political management so far. This unfulfilled claim threatens to drag down the Government's reputation for Covid competence, and tarnish its reputation further in terms of its ability to "deliver" (following on from disappointments in housing, transport, and child poverty).
Perhaps the most trenchant condemnation of the rollout came in Andrea Vance's column last week: We've been patient, but the vaccination roll-out is not going to plan. She says the public's trust and patience threatens to run out, given how behind schedule the vaccination programme is.
Here's her main point: "New Zealand is at the bottom of the OECD for vaccination rates. Only half a million people are fully immunised. A third of border workers have not had both jabs – a milestone that was supposed to have been reached by June's end. There are also failings in vaccinating Māori and Pasifika (with rates between 20 and 40 per cent behind Pākehā per capita), despite being twice as at-risk from the virus. The vaccination of most people living in the Canterbury region has been moved back by at least two months."
Vance challenges the "moral argument" made by defenders of the Government that it's been better to let the supply of the vaccine go to more deserving countries: "That plays well to Ardern's compassionate image, but it's cynical. In reality, we are not safe until we are all safe, and it makes more sense for the countries with infrastructure capability to get on and vaccinate populations while others get up to speed."
The Government has now shifted its messaging from "front of the queue" to "it's not how you start, it's how you finish" – arguing a slow start to the rollout won't matter in the end.
This was all well discussed in Stuff political editor Luke Malpass' column on Saturday, Why the vaccine programme is now the only political game in town. He argues the Government could still be rewarded by the public if it gets the next few weeks right: "If Labour manages to pull it off, it will be a big tick in the competence column." However, if the Delta variant gets into the country, then "the slowness of the vaccine programme will be brought into sharp relief".
Similarly, Herald political editor Claire Trevett argued on Saturday that for the vaccine rollout, "the next two months will be critical for the Government, which is still being given the benefit of the doubt" – see: Angry response to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Facebook post a crossroads moment (paywalled).
Here's Trevett's main point: "Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week apologised for the vaccine rollout there being somewhat slower than he had hoped. Australia's rollout is pretty much the same pace as New Zealand's – but New Zealanders are so far more accepting than Australians have been. When Ardern was asked if she too would apologise, she instead talked it up. But the Government has been issuing a 'ramping up' promise for months now – and people are finding they cannot get bookings for months in advance."
The Government's problem with public perceptions about vaccination "delivery" was also discussed yesterday by former NZ First chief of staff Jon Johansson, who says 2019 was dogged by Labour calling it "The Year of Delivery", and so it has risked repeating this by labelling 2021 as "The Year of the Vaccine" – see: Echoes of Labour's delivery failures in the Year of the Vaccine.
Johansson challenges the official spin-lines on the rollout, saying "the gap in logic between 'the one source of truth' on the Beehive podium and lived experience over the vaccine roll-out is opening a yawning perceptual gap". And he finds it incredible that the Government has said District Health Boards have to be abolished due to their failures, and yet they are being trusted with this crucial task.
Vaccine rollout problems
The journalist who has covered the vaccine rollout best is the Herald's Derek Cheng. On Thursday he reported on the Government's latest explanation for the delays – that GPs and pharmacists aren't yet on board with DHB plans for delivering the doses – see: Not so ready to roll? From near-zero supply to 500k doses in reserve.
According to Cheng, it is reasonable that the Government couldn't roll out the programme earlier when supplies of the vaccine were low, but "it's hardly a model of efficiency to finally have the supply issue sorted but then be hamstrung by delivery capacity".
The same day, Cheng also explained that the programme needs to deliver "about 50,000 doses a day to vaccinate four million people by December", but "Chris Hipkins said that capacity to do so wouldn't be ready until the end of August – six weeks away" – see: Health Ministry's new plan – 170,000 fewer jabs by end of August (paywalled).
In this, Cheng challenges the official explanation for the delays, saying "GPs and pharmacies [have been] crying out for months for more information and to be more involved".
Also in this article, Cheng reports that DHBs have lowered their ambitions for how many doses they will administer over the next month – from 3.22 million doses to 3.05 million – which is "prompting questions over whether they've been changed to make it easier for DHBs to look ahead of target".
The goal of the vaccination programme is to immunise a sufficiently high proportion of the population so that herd immunity is achieved – likely to require something over 80 per cent. However, Bernard Hickey is pessimistic that such levels will be possible without some innovative strategies, especially as many members of the public who say in surveys that they will get vaccinated inevitably won't – see: Get ready for the big push to the finishing line on vaccination.
There are other signs that DHBs are not up to the job of the vaccine rollout. For example, Hannah Martin reports that nearly half of DHBs aren't even collecting data about their own staff getting vaccinated – see: Nearly half of all DHBs do not know how many staff have been vaccinated. But what data is being collected showed DHB staff rates range "anywhere between 69.7 and 91 per cent".
Many DHB systems for allowing the public to book their vaccinations have also been plagued with problems. For one example of this, see Sophie Cornish: Vaccine booking text with disconnected phone number and website sent 'in error' to more than 3000 people.
In the Canterbury region the rollout has been particularly fraught, and apparently is two months behind schedule. For an exploration of what's been going on from the perspective of a resident and an associate professor in organisations and leadership at the University of Canterbury, see Bernard Walker's Why I'm losing patience with the Canterbury vaccine rollout.
Vaccine purchasing problems
The biggest problem so far for the vaccination programme has been the lack of supply of the Pfizer doses, and debate continues as to whether the Government has mismanaged the purchase of these drugs.
On Wednesday Thomas Coughlan reported new information to show that it wasn't until January 29 that the Government actually made its order to Pfizer, and when it did so it only ordered a tiny amount – see: National questions 'front of queue' claim after revealing first Pfizer order just 54,000 doses.
According to this, National's spokesman Chris Bishop claimed that "New Zealand placed purchase orders for Pfizer months after the first doses arrived in other countries like the UK". A spokesperson for the Government explained, in contrast, that the late timing was due to a "maximum safety" approach, given that MedSafe, the Government's drug authority, had not yet given the green light to this vaccine.
Economist Robert MacCulloch has argued that New Zealand's decision to buy such a small number of doses was essentially based on false economy, as the cost of the early doses was higher – see: A Question to Health Minister Hipkins. In this, he says, "The cost-benefit arithmetic goes like this: for our population of just 5 million, paying $40 million more (for two doses) could have avoided billions upon billions of additional economic and well-being costs."
The trickle of small batches into the country became something of a crisis last month, with the programme nearly running out. Political commentator Matthew Hooton outlined how "the Government arranged for 100,000 doses to be diverted from the world's poorest countries in mid-June" – see: How many Covid deaths is too many? (paywalled).
Now there are increasing arguments being made to have the Covid vaccine manufactured in New Zealand. This was put forward by former executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, Ian Powell, last month – see: Lessons for NZ from Cuba, the Covid-19 vaccine powerhouse?
For other voices calling for local vaccine production, see Lucy Warhurst's Growing calls for New Zealand to make our own Covid vaccines.
Finally, despite many commentators arguing that the vaccine rollout is taking too long, Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins argued yesterday that the Government has now got the sequencing wrong, and there should be a delay to the extension of the programme until more vulnerable members of the public are vaccinated – see: Why the Government should delay rolling out the vaccine to the healthy.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.