New Zealand has reached a vaccination milestone many thought impossible - 90 per cent of eligible Kiwis are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Deemed an unprecedented endeavour for a creaking health system, confirmation of 90 per cent was foreshadowed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday before being confirmed by the Ministry of Health today.
In September, one month after Delta arrived on our shores, the NZ Herald announced The 90% Project - a campaign with an aim to see New Zealand reach 90 per cent before Christmas.
This target was later endorsed by the Government, with Ardern and director general of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield stating 90 per cent vaccination coverage would afford strong national protection against the virus.
It's been a long journey to this point - surges in demand almost derailed vaccination centres while dwindling vaccine stocks threatened to stop the rollout entirely.
But the journey hasn't ended. Māori vaccination levels are well below the national average, several areas won't hit 90 per cent until January and vaccinations of 5 to 11-year-olds are imminent.
Today, the Herald looks back on all the trials and tribulations in getting to 90 per cent, and talks to New Zealand's leaders and health experts about what's next.
How we got to 90 per cent
On February 18, the first vials of the Pfizer vaccine were administered to vaccinators before it was given to staff at the border and in managed isolation/quarantine facilities in the following days.
Early Ministry of Health research indicated about 65-70 per cent of people would be willing to be vaccinated and progress towards 80 per cent would stall.
It was also around this time when experts here and abroad expected herd immunity to be reached once populations hit 70 per cent. That threshold was then significantly raised to as high as 97 per cent with the emergence of Delta.
On March 10, the Government revealed how it was going to rollout the vaccine to New Zealanders through four priority groups, starting with border and MIQ workers, moving through to frontline staff and at-risk communities before ending on the general population.
The basis of the group structure was to ensure those who were most likely to come into contact with the virus and those most at risk could access the vaccine first.
Māori and Pasifika health advocates criticised the plan at the time, saying it didn't go far enough in prioritising their respective populations which were more at risk to the virus at a younger age compared to Pākehā.
Community vaccination centres were quickly set up, particularly in Auckland. By early April, local providers including Manurewa Marae and South Seas Healthcare in South Auckland were onboarded to administer vaccinations.
However, vaccines were slow to arrive at general practices and pharmacies, something which the heads of Auckland's rollout recognise as flawed, given how popular primary care providers became in vaccination efforts later in the year.
As more people became eligible for vaccination, demand at community centres grew. DHBs operated their own booking systems but steady streams of walk-ins forced some vaccination centres to temporarily close in mid-May and eventually refuse to accept people without a booking.
These pressures were largely caused by restricted vaccine supply with New Zealand's more sizeable shipments not expected until July.
As frustrations mounted over varying reports of vaccine access across the country, the Government stepped in and introduced Book My Vaccine in June - a national system through which Kiwis could book their vaccination appointment.
Alongside Book My Vaccine, Ardern detailed the age bands in which those in the final priority group - about 2 million Kiwis - would become eligible for the vaccine.
It was established those 45 and over would be able to book their vaccination by late August, 35 and over a month later, before planning to open up to all those 16 and above by October.
Again, health experts called for earlier eligibility for younger Māori and Pasifika but Ardern maintained those populations would be targeted through other methods.
Soon after, demand outstripped expectation and forced some areas to pause bookings, fearing vaccine stocks would run out before the larger July deliveries landed.
Fortunately, vaccines arrived in the nick of time and enabled vaccination rates across the country to rise.
With no Covid-19 in the community, the three-week gap between vaccine doses was doubled on August 12, said to maximise the immunity a person gained from double vaccination.
However, just five days later, the rollout was turbo-charged when Delta finally found its way through the border and into the community, sending the country into a lockdown which would last more than 100 days for Aucklanders.
The threat of a growing outbreak combined with a restrictive lockdown lifestyle formed the perfect setting for vaccinations to skyrocket - reaching as high as 90,000 per day come September.
The age bands and timeframes Ardern explained in June had been thrown out the window as everyone 16 and over became able to book their vaccine by September 1.
Vaccination in 12 to 15-year-olds was approved by Medsafe. Drive-through vaccination events were quickly onboarded.
Mobile vaccination units - something Māori providers had been requesting for months prior - were utilised, taking the vaccine to communities who were yet to engage.
Again faced with low vaccine stocks, the Government hurried to purchase 750,000 extra vaccines from Spain and Denmark to ensure the rollout could continue into October before further shipments arrived.
After peaking at about 70 daily cases, Delta appeared to be contained by mid-September where daily numbers rarely exceeded 20.
It prompted a move in Auckland from alert level 4 to level 3, allowing residents to believe the "short and sharp" lockdown promised by Ardern was coming to an end.
While experts maintain more time in level 4 may not have quashed Delta, positive cases persisted into October before ramping up - eventually peaking in mid-November with 222 cases in one day.
Once vaccine stocks were replenished in October, the Government set about vaccinating as many Kiwis as possible, returning to the three-week gap between doses to encourage further community protection.
The effort was perhaps best illustrated by Super Saturday - a country-wide initiative on October 16 to boost vaccination using a range of incentives.
Across 500 vaccination sites, more than 130,000 Kiwis got their jab on Super Saturday - making it one of the highest days of vaccinations achieved per capita by any member of the OECD.
By late November, positive case numbers started to decline as vaccination levels rose. Auckland DHB became the first in the country to reach the 90 per cent milestone on November 19, closely followed by Capital & Coast.
On November 29, booster shots were introduced for those who had been six months after their second dose. Third doses for immunocompromised people were also approved.
While Pasifika vaccinations now almost match national figures, Māori still lag behind. Eighty-six per cent of eligible Māori are partially vaccinated while 76 per cent are double dosed.
DHBs with high Māori populations including Northland, Tairāwhiti and Whanganui aren't expected to reach 90 per cent fully vaccinated until January - weeks into the country's transition to the traffic light system and the rise of vaccination passes and mandates.
While many have criticised the speed of the rollout, New Zealand not only has the lowest level of hospitalisation and death rate in the OECD, it is among one of only three countries to see life expectancy rise during the pandemic.
With vaccination of 5 to 11-year-olds expected to start earlier next year alongside boosters, New Zealand's vaccine rollout is bound to have more twists and turns yet.
"Best Christmas present ever"
Bloomfield told the Herald reaching 90 per cent fully vaccinated across the country was the "best Christmas present ever", almost a week out from the big day.
"This is a present that New Zealanders have given to each other," he said.
"It allows us to protect ourselves, our whānau and those who are more vulnerable."
Freshly minted National leader Chris Luxon welcomed the news with similar gusto. However, ACT leader David Seymour believed the government had run a "disastrous" rollout at huge cost to New Zealanders.
"We are months behind the rest of the world and have paid an enormous cost. The Government failed in the rollout, failed in the procurement, failed in every aspect."
He also said Kiwis should not fall into "Stockholm syndrome" by being grateful to the Government for every milestone.
He said the Government needed to make sure New Zealand was able to get any new Pfizer vaccines early.
"If there is a new booster for Omicron for example, then we need to be at the front of the queue to order it."
University of Otago Professor Michael Baker said reaching 90 per cent was an outstanding effort and a moment to celebrate.
"If you'd asked people early on in the pandemic, people thought 90 per cent was very aspirational."
Nevertheless, he pointed to success overseas which indicated New Zealand still had mahi to do.
"Places like Singapore and Portugal are approaching 98-99 per cent vaccination for the adult population, so we know we have a way to go still."
Dr Collin Tukuitonga from the University of Auckland called it a "fantastic achievement" which meant good protection against Covid-19.
But he remained concerned as to whether Māori could reach the 90 per cent milestone.
"In order to protect everyone it's important to get the Māori rate up.
"If we were to do this again, we really need to engage and empower Māori leaders and providers to lead on the vaccinations within their communities."