Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has revealed the country’s first Covid-19 vaccine could be granted approval in New Zealand in just over a week.
This is the first time the Government has put an explicit timeframe on the vaccine’s approval.
Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins spoke at a post-Cabinet press conference today.
Ardern told media the recent Northland community case was an “unwelcome” situation but something that the Government has prepared for.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Health revealed a 56-year-old woman in the region had tested positive for the virus.
The PM said it goes to show what a “tricky virus” Covid-19 is.
Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins revealed there were no new community cases today – out of the 16 close contacts of the person in question – 15 have returned negative tests.
One more result is pending.
He said 154 people have been identified as contacts of the person – they are all isolation pending results.
Meanwhile, he said there have been “a number of calls to Healthline” as to what actually constitutes a “close contact”.
Hipkins confirmed 1500 people were tested yesterday in Northland – on a testing per 1000 basis, Maori were tested the most.
But he said there is still a lot of testing going on. But warned people not to line up for testing unless they are symptomatic, or a contact of the Covid-19 positive person.
There has been a significant uptick in the number of people using the Covid-19 app, he said.
Ardern reminded people to scan in everywhere they go, and to turn on the Bluetooth function as well.
She said some people think that if Bluetooth is on, they don’t need to scan.
But that is not the case, she said, adding that people still need to scan even if Bluetooth is on.
“Scan everywhere you go.”
Vaccine information released
The first people in New Zealand to receive the vaccinations will be border and managed isolation and quarantine workforce and their close contacts, Hipkins said.
“These brave people have been protecting our country from this global pandemic during the past year and protecting them and those who share their households is a priority for us,” Hipkins said.
It will take two to three weeks for the Government to finish vaccinating frontline health and border workers and their close contacts, Ardern said.
She said this will provide a line of defence for them.
Ardern said she expects New Zealand’s borders to remain closed for this year.
She said enough people need to be vaccinated in New Zealand for the borders to be open – that “will take time”.
The timeframe for the wider population remains the same – Hipkins said a vaccine will be rolled out to the general public midway through this year.
Hipkins said the Government had bought a “diverse portfolio” of vaccines so the Government will have options as vaccination period rolls out.
That’s so “we had that range” when it comes to using some vaccines that could be more effective on different people, Ardern said.
Hipkins said the Government had made “pre-purchase agreements” but it has other options, including purchasing more vaccines based on their effectiveness.
Ardern said she has spoken very deliberately not in specifics when it comes to the vaccine rollout because much of the timeline sits with the pharmaceutical companies.
But New Zealand, she said, will “have our house in order” when the rollout can begin.
Ardern said she has always said the vaccines will come in the “first quarter” of this year – she deliberately does not want to give specifics.
“We’re ready to go when we get vaccines,” Hipkins said. But he warned that the vaccines will come in a small amount first, before they ramp up later in the year.
But New Zealand is “well geared up” for when the roll out begins, he said.
Hipkins said the Government is still in conversation with Pfizer about the schedule of the vaccines coming to New Zealand.
Asked about vaccine sceptics, Ardern said that would be a smaller group in New Zealand. She said this is something that can be overcome. “They need as much information as possible.”
She said there was going to be a vaccine education push before the roll-out, to make sure people are educated about it.
She said the “team of 5 million” expects the Government to “do its homework” when it comes to the vaccine – and that homework will be shared with Kiwis, she said.
Ardern added the Government has been making “swift progress” towards vaccinating New Zealanders against the virus.
“But we’re also absolutely committed to ensuring the vaccines are safe and effective,” she said.
Medsafe will be seeking advice and recommendations from the Medicines Assessment Advisory Committee (MAAC) next Tuesday, about the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, Ardern said.
A Ministerial expert advisory committee will then review Medsafe’s benefit-risk assessment of the data and, depending on feedback, Medsafe may be able to grant provisional approval as soon as the following day.
“Medsafe’s process not only ensures New Zealanders can feel confident in the vaccines we receive, it’s also been timely and means we will be ready to receive and administer vaccines as soon as Pfizer is in a position to send them,” Ardern said.
“We’ve always known a safe and effective vaccine is a vital part of our Covid-19 response for our long-term control of the virus. 2021 is Year of the Vaccine.”
If granted, the provisional approval of the vaccine will mean that Medsafe has sufficient information and assurance of both safety and effectiveness for it to allow vaccination to start – though there will be continued monitoring of the vaccine here and overseas.
“However,” Hipkins said, “if Medsafe decides next week that some additional assurances are required before it grants approval, I accept their decision and am satisfied that it’s the right decision on behalf of all of us.
“Safety is paramount and we want to be assured of this and also allow all New Zealanders the same opportunity of protection as other countries,”
‘Disappointed’ by Aussie PM decision
Ardern said she expressed “disappointment” to Australian PM Scott Morrison about his decision to put the breaks on the trans-Tasman bubble.
She would not be drawn as to whether he has overreacted – but said she told him that the situation was “well under control.”
She said the Government is to continue to monitor the bubble – but it’s looking a lot harder when it comes to a “country by country” bubble. She said a state by state bubble is another matter.
Ardern said from what she has seen, no country has ever barred their own citizens from returning. She said when asked about not letting people back into New Zealand from Covid-risky countries that would render then stateless.
She said the Government is constantly looking at what it can do, to protect New Zealand.
But she said one would be hard-pressed to find border restrictions more stringent that New Zealand’s.
Ardern said one of New Zealand’s main complexity around the travel bubble with Australia is that NZ is dealing with a number of different states.
Australia, on the other hand, is just dealing with one country with one set of rules.
“That has complicated things for us,” she said, adding that New Zealand had taken a “conservative approach”.
Hipkins said getting to New Zealand from anywhere in the world is complex web of travel – given that planes stop at different locations and pick up new people on the way here.
He said that makes it harder to separate people in MIQs into different facilities.
PM on National’s housing plan
On emergency Housing legislation, called for by National, Ardern said much has already learned from the post-Christchurch rebuild.
“It is too hard to build houses in New Zealand,” National leader Judith Collins said in a state of the nation speech this afternoon.
“We need to make it drastically easier. With rents and house prices spiralling out of control, Kiwis can no longer afford to wait.”
“We have already moved on that,” Ardern said in response to Collins.
But she said she disagreed with a number of things in National leader Judith Collins’ letter.
“The things that she [Collins] is saying we should do, we have already done,” Ardern said.
On Northland queues, Hipkins said the Government has increased testing sites on the ground.
But he said the biggest issue was people going to get tests, who do not need them.
He again called for only those with symptoms to get a test in Northland.
“We cannot guarantee that there won’t be delays,” he said.
On iwi checkpoints, Ardern said New Zealand – and Northland – is still at level 1 so people still need to be able to move around the country.
Given than, these sort of roadblocks are not needed – but she called for the iwi to work with Police.
She said there is no concern around the upcoming long weekends.
Since news first broke, testing stations across Northland have been swamped.
Some concerned locals have spent up to 10 hours waiting in long, hot queues, for a test after the Ministry of Health revealed more than 30 locations of interest from Whangarei to Helensville visited over a nine-day spell while the woman was infectious.