Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says a potential vaccination botch-up at an Auckland centre was "regrettable", but he had confidence in officials to resolve the situation.
This morning it was revealed five Aucklanders may have been administered a dose of saline solution instead of the Pfizer vaccine when they attended the Highbrook vaccination centre last month.
A senior health official confirmed five doses had remained at the end of the day and didn't tally up with records, so that the possibility some people hadn't received the correct vaccine dose couldn't be ruled out.
Hipkins is appearing before the health select committee with Carolyn Tremain, the head of MBIE, and officials from MIQ and customs.
Hipkins said the issue was picked up at the end of that day and an investigation began straight away. There had been some question as to whether there was actually a problem. Hipkins was told of it a few weeks ago and was told it was being investigated.
National's Chris Bishop has questioned why we still do not know, 44 days later, whether there was a mistake.
Hipkins said there was no way to know for certain, and it could be simply an accounting error rather than botched vaccines.
Hipkins later told reporters that he was aware of another situation where saline might have been administered instead of the Pfizer vaccine, but he did not have any details other than it being "from a while back" and involving "a couple of people".
He added that criteria to allow people in emergency situations into the country will be widened tomorrow, with a focus on people bereaving the loss of close family members.
Bishop asked Hipkins at the committee hearing about the separation of areas at the Crowne Plaza MIQ, where the person identified as the source of the current Delta outbreak had stayed briefly.
MBIE head Caroline Tremain said the Crowne Plaza had been audited in September, March and June and no issues were raised.
Tremain said there had not yet been any definitive findings in how Covid-19 passed from the passenger from Australia into the community.
Brigadier Rose King, the head of MIQ, told the committee all the fencing and separation at the Crowne Plaza met the criteria.
Bishop asked if that criteria was still robust enough, given the transmissibility of Delta.
Hipkins said the delay before the information over a potential blunder in the vaccines rollout was "regrettable" and it should have been made public earlier.
He said no system was foolproof against human error, and the vaccine rollout had otherwise been "very safe and efficient."
The incident related to concerns that five people may have been given saline instead of the Pfizer vaccine after a spare vial was found at the end of the day back in July.
Act MP Brooke van Velden is asking what will happen with MIQ, which has been suspended while New Zealand deals with the Delta outbreak.
Hipkins said the capacity in MIQ was always being looked at. He said the current situation showed why they did not open bookings too far in advance, to allow room to "flex." That was happening now, as one MIQ facility was transformed into an isolation hotel.
Asked if he had considered bringing more hotels into the MIQ system, Hipkins said it depended as much on workforces as the hotels. However, the Government was looking at converting hotels into permanent MIQ facilities.
He said the trouble with using hotels in other cities was it meant passengers had to be transferred by air. That was the case with Wellington, where passengers had to be flown from Auckland.
"But we are looking at whether we can squeeze more out of the system to get more capacity [in MIQ]," Hipkins said.
On dealing with positive cases in the outbreak, Hipkins said the top priority was getting people into a quarantine unit as quickly as possible once they tested positive. Another priority was helping those who needed to isolate from their housemates do so.
Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer has asked why MIQ facilities end up concentrated in areas with high Maori and Pacific populations, such as south Auckland and Rotorua.
Hipkins said he understood the concerns being raised in Rotorua. He said there was no more capacity for MIQ or quarantine in South Auckland, and Rotorua was being looked at as a back up. He said it was partly a reflection of where the hotels were: Rotorua had a lot as a tourism centre.
Ngarewa-Packer also asked about changes to mitigate the dangers at the ports. Hipkins said ships with Covid-19 on them did bring a higher risk, but recent times had shown they could be dealt with safely. He said vaccinating port workers was part of improving that.
Customs head Christine Stevenson said PPE had now long been used in ports, and customs was now looking at working with other countries and shipping companies about getting ship's crew vaccinated. However, because they moved from port to port it was difficult to arrange the two shots.
Ngarewa-Packer has asked why a state-owned MIQ facility had not yet been arranged. Hipkins said at the time, using existing hotels was "the fastest and the cheapest" way of standing up MIQ. "And it has served us very well." He said there were a variety of options on the table for the future. He said continuing to use private hotels was likely to be part of the system for the future, but other options included purpose-built facilities, either owned and run by the Government or a third party, and buying an existing facility and re-fitting it.
Hipkins said they were looking at getting extra space in MIQ up and running to address the high demand and backlogs in the MIQ system, and to make the booking system "more transparent and fair." However, he said at times of high demand "there are always going to be people who miss out."
Hipkins said there would always be a need to keep a contingency of rooms for situations like short notice changes to the bubble. He said the MIQ system had been running at capacity for some time, since the Trans Tasman bubble "popped."
Asked how seriously he took the right of New Zealanders to get back into the country, Hipkins said he got a lot of correspondence from people wanting to get into MIQ, with a range of reasons for travel. The example he gave was somebody in New Zealand who wanted to go to the UK for a wedding, but couldn't get a slot in MIQ for the planned return flight.
"There are people who have an absolute need to come back to those who expect to travel as normal and expect there to be a [place in MIQ] when they come back."
In relation to whether they have investigated the processes at the Jet Park facility after the Delta outbreak, Hipkins put in a plea for those working at MIQ. "There are people who work in MIQ who are ostracised by their communities. They are not allowed into their sports clubs and things. I believe they are the heroes. I know how hard they are working, and I know how personally they take any criticism."
The question was sparked by cases of Delta crossing over to people staying in the rooms opposite an infected person, simply by the doors opening at the same time as people collected meals.
On the vaccinations rollout, Hipkins said it would take some time to bring a lot of GPs into the scheme. However, they had now halved the amount of time it took to bring GPs on board. The early priority had been health services which could vaccinate in large numbers. National's health spokesman Shane Reti said if it was going to take that long it was "a failure."
Reti also asked why it was taking more than 24 hours for postive cases to get into the Jet Park facility.
Hipkins said there were rooms, but there were other reasons for a delay.
MIQ head Brigadier Rose King confirmed there was availability at Jet Park, but there were a number of protocols in transporting to adhere to. "We have increased the transport capability, but obviously the demand we have is a lot higher."
National's Simon Watts has asked about the wait times for the test results in the outbreak. Hipkins said in some cases the results were reported back to GPs, who had to report it to the patient. He could not guarantee that was being done in a timely manner. However, if somebody was positive they would be told quickly. He said it was "very unfortunate" if people were waiting for more than a week, as Watts claimed. He said he knew there had been 48 hour timeframes because of the demand in the system, but that has since dropped back to 24 hours in most cases.
Hipkins said he had not seen any evidence that the proximity of a vaccination clinic to the Crowne Plaza had put people going to that clinic in danger.
Hipkins would not give a number for how many extra MIQ rooms he hoped to have in place by the end of the year, saying that would depend on commercial negotiations.
Bishop asked if there should be a "points" system, similar to the immigration system, for working out who should get MIQ slots. Hipkins said they were considering such measures as part of a wider review, but it was an "enormous undertaking" to process such a system - given it would require checking each person's claims.
Delta outbreak grows to 200+ cases
There are 62 new Covid-19 cases in the community today and six sub-clusters have emerged in the outbreak.
One of the new cases was in Warkworth, north of Auckland, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield said the total number of cases in the outbreak has now hit 210.
There are 12 people in hospital with Covid-19.
Bloomfield said the majority of case links were from households and workplaces. Some were from locations of interest.
The six sub-clusters included the Māngere church, and the Birkdale flat. There were 105 cases associated with the church now.
There were 14 cases associated with a Massey household, but the rest of the sub-clusters were less than 10 people, so Bloomfield would not reveal what they were.
Bloomfield mentioned the racist remarks to those in the Samoan community as "disappointing and gutless".
He said that the community had been "incredibly responsive" and were backing the effort to try to track down cases.
Of today's case numbers, Bloomfield said it was "steady but not exponential growth".
Hipkins said they were seeing cases that were not close contacts of existing cases but had been at locations of interest. However, they pre-dated lockdown.