Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says "hesitancy and mis-information" has slowed down the vaccination rollout at the port of Tauranga.
Ardern made the comments while giving an update alongside Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins on the vaccine rollout this afternoon at a press conference.
The PM faced questions on the risk posed by the Delta variant on a container ship at Tauranga. Eleven of 21 crew on the Rio De La Plata container ship off Tauranga have tested positive.
Asked about the risk of port workers going onto the container ship in Tauranga, Ardern said vaccinations had been open to port workers "for some time".
She said hesitancy and mis-information had slowed down the uptake in ports.
Ardern said 98 port workers who had dealt with the Rio De La Plata had been tested but only nine of the workers were fully vaccinated.
She pointed out that it was now mandatory for those workers to be vaccinated by the end of September "or it may mean job loss".
She said making that mandatory was a big step for private sector companies, but the Government considered the risk was too big not to do it given the low voluntary uptake.
Hipkins said the feedback from smaller ports, and Tauranga, was that they would have to stop receiving and sending out cargo: "That would be huge for New Zealand."
Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said of the 98 workers, six had not gone onto the ship. So far, 23 negative results had come back including the pilot who had taken the ship out.
Hipkins said they were looking at whether it was known there were sick people on board when the ship was unloaded.
He said it was not always possible to test a ship's crew before unloading. "But we will look at who knew what when" and what decisions were made when.
Ardern said there were strict requirements around the movements of crew from overseas ships, and for the New Zealand port-side workers dealing with them.
There was a four-day period during which the ship was berthed.
Ardern said port workers had to follow strict protocols.
"However, we want them to be vaccinated too. It is just not good enough to rely on infection controls ... in a high-risk environment."
Hipkins said it was not yet known why the unloading of the ship was paused, and then recommenced.
Hipkins said only about nine of the 98 workers were fully vaccinated and two had received their first dose. "Those numbers are too low."
Ardern said the pilot who had piloted the ship out of the harbour was among those who tested negative, and he had been on the vessel.
Ardern said all the workers were in isolation - some would be in isolation for longer, depending on their contact with the vessel.
Ardern said local public health authorities had told them the protocols were followed. "We have port workers in the future who refuse to be vaccinated, and so they may lose their roles. What we are up against is mis-information."
Hipkins said the port workers had had access to vaccinations since almost the beginning of the vaccination rollout.
He said the port workers were "by far" the lowest vaccinated of all border workers and he had been concerned about it for some time. "It does appear clear there is a greater degree of mis-information here, a greater degree of conspiracy theory."
He did not want to speculate on why that was the case for port workers more than other groups of border workers.
Ardern said making the vaccination mandatory was a big step, but the risk was too high not to: "It's crunch time by the end of this month if those workers are not vaccinated."
Hipkins said if port workers chose not to stay in their roles rather than get vaccinated, it could impact on whether ports could continue to operate as normal. That was especially the case for the smaller ports, where they might only have one or two people who could undertake key roles.
Hipkins said it would be up to employers to decide whether those unvaccinated people were re-deployed or lost their jobs.
Hipkins said keeping supply lines open was very important, and some shipping companies would drop New Zealand off their itineraries if it was too hard.
"They are critical to New Zealand," he said.
50-55 age group set to book vaccinations
Ardern said more than 300,000 New Zealanders aged 50 – 55 years will now be able to book their vaccines from Friday, August 13.
Hipkins said the strong uptake from the older bands in Group 4 meant the next group could now book sooner than initially expected.
In the Government's original rollout plan, those aged 45 – 55 were to be allowed to book from mid-August.
Last week, those aged 55-plus were allowed to book a few days earlier than expected.
The decision on the 50-55s will mean they are also brought in a couple of days early although those aged 45-50 still have a wait for a bit.
On the bookings system, Hipkins said there would be variations in the time it took for people to get their shots but the Government wanted to keep "fuelling" the bookings.
Hipkins said vaccines supply was continuing as expected.
"One million doses of the vaccine were delivered in July, and another 1.5 million will be delivered in August, 388,000 of these arriving yesterday morning.
"Being able to open another age band so quickly is a real confidence booster and shows how well New Zealand is embracing the vaccine," Hipkins said.
"The booking system continues to perform well with a record 296,650 vaccinations booked last week. We now have 1,009,536 vaccinations booked in the system. Over the last three days the 0800 call centre handled 27,695 calls with an average wait time of less than 1 minute.
The new cohort can book from Friday on bookmyvaccine.covid19.health.nz, or by calling the 0800 28 29 26 COVID Vaccination Healthline.
Ardern said 35 per cent of the eligible population had now had one dose and 21 per cent were fully vaccinated.
"This rapid take up of the offer to be vaccinated is fantastic," she said, saying bookings had been strong.
Ardern said it meant they could now open to those aged 50 plus from Friday. She emphasised that all other groups which were already under way could continue to book.
Last week, the over-60s were given the green light a few days earlier than expected.
Asked about the surge in NSW and if it meant the end of the travel bubble, Ardern said there was still some time to run before making those decisions.
She said as long as New Zealand was still going through its vaccination rollout, there would not be quarantine free travel.
The bubble would only reopen if Australia managed to contain the outbreak there.
"We won't risk [elimination goal] while we still have an unvaccinated population."
More than 2.2 million doses
The latest figures in the vaccines rollout show that 2.2 million doses had been administered as of midnight last night, and 820,000 were now fully vaccinated.
The Cabinet could also have discussed advice from director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield on whether to extend the gap between the two shots from three weeks to eight weeks.
Bloomfield told a conference of GPs last week that overseas evidence was showing an eight week gap could result in better immunity levels.
Last night the Ministry of Health reported 11 positive Delta Covid-19 cases aboard the Rio De La Plata, which is off the coast of Tauranga Port.
About 90 port staff who dealt with the ship are now being tested to ensure none have caught Covid-19 - the Ministry of Health has said it believed appropriate protocols were followed. It is the fourth overseas vessel on which there have been Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.
Last week, Hipkins flagged concern about the low rate of port workers who were vaccinated. At that point about 44 per cent were yet to be vaccinated. In mid-July, the Government brought in a new requirement to have all border-related workers in private companies vaccinated by the end of September.
This week will also see the a report by the Covid-19 health advisory group released by its chairman David Skegg, setting out the evidence that will be needed to start opening borders.
That will be released on Wednesday, and followed up on Thursday by a speech by Ardern, which she has said will give people an idea of what to expect over the next six months.
Ardern will speak at a forum in Wellington where Skegg and other experts will speak to the report's findings.
While countries such as Australia have set vaccinations thresholds for when the borders might start to reopen, Ardern told the NZ Herald on Saturday that she was reluctant to do the same in case some people thought it meant they did not need to be vaccinated.
Ardern also congratulated the NZ Olympic team, saying they had "done us proud" over the last two weeks.
Ardern said on Thursday she would speak at a Reconnecting to the World forum on the Government's response to the advice of the Covid health group.
She said she knew people were keen to resume travel. "Our ultimate goal is to resume quarantine free travel."
She said right now, not enough was known to resume ordinary travel.
She said the Skegg report also highlighted the changes the Delta variant had made to risk assessments, and the changes to the advice that was being tendered.
On the Conversion Therapy Bill, Ardern said she was surprised National had decided not to vote for the conversion therapy bill at first reading, despite saying it supported its intent.
National had wanted clarification of whether parents would be exempt for intervening in their children's decisions.
Ardern said she hoped National would be able to support it after select committee. She said the bar was very high under the bill and general practitioners were excluded from it. It seemed to be "a very unlikely scenario" that parents could be prosecuted.