Currently, the Government offers near-universal access to the Covid-19 vaccine and booster shots, but the programme is expensive.
The 2023 Budget allocated a total of $295 million for the Covid-19 vaccine programme.
This was made up of $165.2m for Pharmac to purchase vaccines and antivirals in the 2023-24 fiscal year (well down on the $886.9m spent last year) and $129.9m to deliver the vaccine to people. The funding is a multi-year appropriation, allowing it to be spent over a longer time.
The Government is currently on a cost-cutting drive as fiscal pressures bite.
Reti told the Herald the both vaccines and antivirals were “funded currently via Pharmac”.
“The funding for both is due to come to an end at June 30, 2024, and remains under consideration.”
The scrapping of free jabs entirely would be unlikely but the Government could move to a targeted system like the one used for the flu, where vulnerable populations such as the elderly get free immunisations, while others have to pay.
The funding also includes the purchase of Covid-19 antivirals, which significantly improve the likelihood someone with Covid-19 will survive infection.
Former Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, now Labour’s health spokeswoman, said she expected the Government to take expert advice before changing the vaccine strategy.
“I left a set of instructions of officials to ensure that arrangements for supply and purchase [of vaccines and antivirals] if necessary were made, however, I also knew that an assessment needed to be made about what our needs in 2024 would be,” Verrall said.
“Access to Covid treatments and vaccines is really important for those who remain at risk in particular”.
Verrall said there would need to be an “assessment by experts about what the needs for the coming year are”.
Access to free flu vaccines is targeted but to a large number of people, including those who are pregnant, people of certain ages and those with particular medical conditions.
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.