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Dunne Speaks: Things Are Already Getting "hairy"!

Chris Hipkins’ admission that things could get “a bit hairy” if Covid19 vaccine supplies do not arrive as planned in early July could be applied to all aspects of the government’s Covid19 response.

In stark contrast to its approach during the early stages of the pandemic outbreak when it was so certain and assured, the government now looks indecisive, hesitant and uncertain. Very little seems to be going according to plan, and there is even doubt that there is much of a plan anymore.

Last year, New Zealand’s commitment to an elimination strategy was hailed around the world as an example other nations should be following. Now, top epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says New Zealand is the “last man standing” in still believing that an elimination strategy can work.

Late last year, just before the election the government assured us “we were at the head of the queue” when it came to obtaining vaccines. Now, when we have the lowest rate of vaccination of most of the developed countries, senior Minister David Parker, an intelligent man who really should know better, says the “head of the queue” comment only ever related to the AstraZeneca vaccine, not to vaccination as a whole.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine was approved for use in Britain last December. Since then, it has been approved throughout the European Union, in Asia, Canada and Australia, the Indian subcontinent and even in Brazil whose President continues to deny Covid19 is a problem at all. Meanwhile, according to Minister Hipkins, it is unlikely to be approved for use in New Zealand before the end of the year. Yet Medsafe follows the advice of other regulators like the European Medicines Authority, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (all of whom have already approved the AstraZeneca vaccine) meaning there is no reason for its approval in New Zealand being delayed any further.

So far, “head of the queue” New Zealand has fully vaccinated less than 8% of its population, well below Israel’s 60%, the United Kingdom’s 48%, or the United States’ 46%. Even denialist Brazil has so far fully vaccinated 12% of its population – just over 50% more in percentage terms than New Zealand. Our approach to date to securing vaccines offers no hope that New Zealand’s relative position will improve any time soon.

Countries across Europe, the United Kingdom, Singapore and others are now well advanced on the development of their own “roadmaps” out of Covid19. In New Zealand, however, although there is a team of officials supposedly working on this, their work appears to be given little priority by Ministers. The Prime Minister has consistently declined to be specific about timeframes for removing Covid19 restrictions, or whether she was even prepared to look at options like vaccination passports. However, one of her senior external advisers, Sir Brian Roche, did observe recently that New Zealand could be facing a further three to five years of restrictions.

Meanwhile, consistent with Professor Baker’s “last man standing” comment other countries are learning how to live with Covid19. Singapore has recently announced a post Covid19 roadmap towards living with Covid19, based on expanding vaccination and rigorous testing, instead of continuing with its strict rules governing social gatherings, mask-wearing, contact-tracing and travel.

Anyone watching the European Football Championship or the tennis at Wimbledon will have noticed the large crowds in attendance. Yet, we keep being told that although such things have been normal here for some time, it is only because we have done so well in eliminating the virus here. The fact that other countries, where the incidence of Covid19 has been far worse, are now able to return to relative normality, including allowing large-scale public gatherings and opening their borders, through vaccination and testing, seems to be completely ignored here.

The failures surrounding the vaccination programme are unconscionable. Not only have we failed to secure sufficient stocks to ensure the fast roll-out of the programme we were promised, the management of the roll-out has been inconsistent and unclear. Previously identified key population groups like the frail elderly are still not fully vaccinated, and there is confusion over the timetable for the rest of the population.

Now, with the experts suggesting that a national vaccination rate of 83% to 97% of the total population is required to be certain of herd immunity being achieved, Minister Hipkins refuses to commit to that goal being achieved, let alone by the end of the year. Yet previously we were told that achieving herd immunity was an important step along the way to our returning to normality. Perhaps this is what Sir Brian Roche was referring to when he spoke of three to five more years of restrictions.

When the Prime Minister far too prematurely and quite erroneously proclaimed to the world just on a year ago that we had eliminated the virus and were looking to an early lifting of restrictions, we looked for a brief moment like world leaders. Since then, we have constantly slipped back and now lag behind many countries in adjusting to the new world order imposed by Covid19 and getting back to normal. Perhaps that is why she seems to be playing a far less public role in the government’s Covid19 response these days.

It is surely time for a Covid19 policy reset before things get any more “hairy”. That reset should have two prongs. First, the government and its specialist agencies need to be much more aggressive in securing and approving the vaccines needed to guarantee mass population vaccination by at least the end of the year. Second, the government needs to pay far more urgent attention to the development of the post Covid19 roadmap to get away from the impression we are trapped in some sort of Covid19 time warp we cannot or will not escape from, unlike other countries.

After all, if we really were one of the first countries to eliminate Covid19 as the Prime Minister claimed, we should not be one of the last, as now seems increasingly likely, to escape its clutches.

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