The Government is considering making it mandatory for some frontline health workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the Herald can reveal.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed he has asked health officials for advice on making the Pfizer vaccine mandatory for health workers in contact with confirmed Covid-19 cases, including in hospitals.
Such policy wasn't on the table before the highly infectious Delta strain forced a rethink of how to protect the country. It would be a "last resort", Hipkins told the Herald.
"We currently encourage all frontline healthcare workers to be vaccinated. This is a group that has been eligible to be vaccinated since the beginning of the rollout to Group 2 [in March].
"We would prefer people got vaccinated when they became eligible to protect themselves and others. However, I have asked for advice on whether we need to make vaccination mandatory for those healthcare workers dealing with Covid-19 patients."
Last month Hipkins announced a mandatory vaccination order would be extended to cover many port and airport workers, as well as those working in Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities.
The possible extension of the order comes as a minority of workers remain unvaccinated. They apparently include those in areas that treat Covid patients - in July, an intensive care clinician at Middlemore Hospital concerned about the transfer of a Covid patient from Fiji told Newshub, "our ICU teams are not all immunised. Neither are their families."
Groups including the Medical Council and College of GPs have already advised members they shouldn't be working with patients if unvaccinated.
Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, told the Herald he couldn't understand why any health worker wouldn't be vaccinated, at this stage of the rollout. Making it a requirement was a good idea, he said, to protect the health worker as well as other patients they come into contact with.
"I would have thought most clinical staff in that situation [in contact with Covid-19 patients] would be queuing up to get vaccinated. Partly to protect their family members as well. I know a lot are very concerned about taking the infection home.
"But there must be some reason why this is being done at this point."
General vaccination rates are rapidly increasing because there are no longer supply issues, with a new record of more than 63,000 doses administered on Monday. One in five New Zealanders have had both doses.
Scientists warn Delta will continue to pose a threat, even if a significant minority of Kiwis are unvaccinated. One study has estimated reopening New Zealand's borders without hard measures like lockdowns could lead to more than 11,000 hospitalisations - and more than 1000 deaths - even if nine in 10 Kiwis are vaccinated.
The Herald last month revealed nine of 20 DHBs still didn't know which of their staff are vaccinated, with a spokesperson for those health boards saying consent from staff to record that information hadn't been sought because vaccination wasn't mandatory.
The Government has given those DHBs - Northland, Mid Central, Whanganui, Tairāwhiti, Taranaki, Canterbury, South Canterbury, Southern and West Coast - until August 31 to find out the vaccination status of all staff.
The remaining DHBs were at different stages of staff vaccination last month, ranging between 69 per cent of staff fully vaccinated up to 91 per cent.
An email sent to Auckland City Hospital staff this week, seen by the Herald, noted, "we continue to have conversations with unvaccinated staff".
Full vaccination provides a high degree of protection against Delta infection, and greater protection against severe illness, hospitalisation and death. According to the ministry, the effectiveness of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine against illness is about 88 per cent, and against hospitalisation is about 96 per cent.
However, "break-through" infections do happen, when a vaccinated person gets infected, with a risk of transmission to others. This occurred in the current outbreak when a fully vaccinated nurse at Auckland City Hospital returned a positive test, with staff and patients subsequently asked to get a test.
Such cases are rare; on Monday, the Ministry of Health confirmed less than 3 per cent of the cases in the current outbreak were fully vaccinated.
That means vaccinated people are far less likely to transmit the virus than those who aren't yet protected. In announcing an extension to the level 4 lockdown on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted the number of people that, on average, each case in the outbreak had passed Delta on to was likely to be six or higher.