The New Zealand government has bet heavily on vaccination targets and certificates to move the country into the re-opening phase of its COVID-19 response.
As part of today’s major announcement, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said 90% of the eligible population must be fully vaccinated in each of the country’s regional district health boards (DHBs) for the new protection framework to come into effect.
That framework involves a “traffic light” system of red, orange and green levels based on case numbers, health system and testing, contact tracing and case management capacities. Targeted local lockdowns would still be an option at the red level.
Vaccine certificates will be essential for access to most environments involving close physical proximity. Even at the green level, businesses – including retail and hospitality, but not essential services – that choose not to use vaccination certificates will be subject to greater restrictions than others.
The message from Ardern was clear: “If you want summer […] get vaccinated.” If you don’t, “there will be everyday things you will miss out on”. This is justified – if unvaccinated people visit busy locations, they are putting other people’s health at risk.
Auckland could soon reach target
Reaching the 90% target would make New Zealand one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world, putting it in a strong position to manage the effects of COVID-19 in the community. With 86% already single-dosed nationally, this target is achievable and could be reached in Auckland within four to five weeks.
But some DHBs are lagging and will take longer. Requiring every DHB to reach the 90% target is important – if some regions are under-vaccinated, COVID-19 will find them, with potentially devastating consequences.
Today’s announcement sends a clear message to all regions – get to 90% or face the possibility of a lockdown when COVID-19 arrives.
The government is also committing NZ$120 million to fast-tracking Māori vaccination, half of that going to iwi-led initiatives.
This is long overdue. Māori vaccination rates are currently too low, with 67% having had a first dose but only 46% fully vaccinated. There is much more work to be done to lift Māori rates and we should be aiming to get at least 90% of Māori fully vaccinated as well.
Children under 12 years old – about 16% of our population – are currently not eligible to be vaccinated. So even once 90% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, that will still leave almost one in four New Zealanders unprotected.
Special consideration will need to be given to the under 12s and primary schools in particular. Improving ventilation in our classrooms needs to be an urgent priority to get kids back into school safely.
There should also be a focus on better testing around school communities including, for example, regular saliva testing or rapid antigen tests for students and teachers.
Overall, having 90% fully vaccinated won’t mean we can forget about COVID-19 altogether. Public health measures like masks, testing, contact tracing and support for people to self-isolate will still be needed to limit the spread of the virus.
Chasing the final 10%
The new framework rightly keeps lockdowns in the toolkit – these may be necessary, for example, if a large outbreak in an at-risk population threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
However, high vaccination rates give us the best chance of keeping pressure off our hospitals and minimising deaths without needing to resort to lockdowns.
Ardern was right to acknowledge there will be more COVID cases than New Zealand has been used to. But, as she also emphasised, this country is one of very few to have the luxury of being able to vaccinate most of its population “before COVID was in every corner of their communities”.
Once we reach the 90% target we won’t be able rest on our laurels, however, and should double down on our efforts to vaccinate the remaining 10%. The more people are vaccinated, the healthier we will be collectively and the more freedom we will enjoy. It’s that simple.