Jacinda Ardern looks to life beyond lockdowns with 90% vaccination target

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J acinda Ardern wants to make New Zealand a world leader in Covid vaccinations, inoculating 90% of the population, but experts warn there will be challenges ahead as the prime minister seeks to find a way to take the harshest lockdowns “out of the toolbox”.

Ardern’s aim to make the population one of the most vaccinated in the world may seem ambitious but it was made as Covid modellers warned that anything less could result in 7,000 deaths, and 60,000 hospitalisations in the event of a community outbreak. So far, New Zealand has recorded a total of just 27 deaths.

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“The best outcome would be what is called ‘population immunity’,” says Shaun Hendy, a Covid-19 modeller at research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini. “This is where enough people are vaccinated that the virus simply can’t find new people to infect. Outbreaks fizzle out on their own.” If the R value – or reproductive rate of the virus – can remain below 1, then the effects of the virus would be “greatly blunted”, he says.

But the centre’s modelling shows that because Delta is so transmissible, population immunity is out of reach by way of the vaccine alone; other public measures must be adopted to bolster its effects. Even if 80% of the population is vaccinated, a community outbreak of the virus would lead to thousands of deaths and put immense strain on the already under-resourced healthcare system.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hopes to lead the world in Covid vaccination rates. Photograph: Getty Images

However, if more than 90% of the population over five years old is immunised, and masks are used, ventilation is improved, contact tracing is kept up and there are moderate border controls in place, then the seasonal health burden of the virus could be less than influenza, says Hendy, who believes the target is achievable. “The higher the coverage, the less restrictions we will need in coming years.”

Nine new cases in the community were reported on Friday, the first time the daily cases have been in single digits since the outbreak began in mid-August. There are now 1,131 cases in the outbreak of the Delta variant, and 902 cases have recovered. All of Friday’s cases are linked to household contacts or contacts of known cases.

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All about access

Reaching 90% vaccination coverage must also mean ensuring that target is hit within communities such as Māori and Pasifika populations, a senior lecturer at Massey University, Jagadish Thaker, said.

A Ministry of Health survey reports that 10% of the population say they will not get a vaccine, and another 10% are still unsure if they will, and contrary to perception, Thaker’s latest research shows hesitancy among Māori is lower than that of other ethnicities.

Despite this, Māori vaccination rates are lagging behind, with about 52% of the population having had one dose, compared with about 70% for Pākehā (European New Zealanders).

Access to the vaccine is the biggest hurdle for Māori communities, he said.

“Research shows that where there are higher density of Māori population, they have to travel a lot more. We had a whole year-and-a-half to know this and so it is surprising now that there is an attempt to increase accessibility,” Thaker said.

He believes 90% target is achievable, but that goal must be equitable across ethnicities, otherwise high vaccination rates will “ultimately be meaningless” because Māori and Pasifika are more likely to die from Covid-19.

The government has been seeking ways to reach communities, including setting up a “Mr-Whippy-style” vaccine bus, and considering giving vaccines at popular destinations like fast-food outlets.

Ardern says vaccines are a cause for hope – with them, the current model of widespread lockdowns could be scrapped.

“We used lockdowns because none of us risk being exposed to the virus. We had to isolate away everyone. With vaccines we can turn that model on its head, we can isolate those who have Covid-19, rather than everyone because we have the individual armour of the vaccine.”

“We could take level four out of the toolbox.”

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She says that with Delta, there are still requirements to use additional public health measures suggested by Te Punaha Matatini, due to its highly infectious nature.

In the past 18 months, Ardern says that New Zealand has had some of the lowest hospitalisation and death rates in the world and more days without restrictions than almost any other country. Now, she wants the country to lead the way in vaccination rates.

“There is now an opportunity for us all to grasp to be one of the most vaccinated countries in the world … it comes down to each and every one of us. We have the supply of vaccines we need; we have the workforce ready to do the job,” she said.

So far, 73% of the eligible population in New Zealand has been vaccinated with one dose. Nearly 40% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated.

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