'Too great a risk': PM says borders likely to remain closed for 2021

New Zealand's border personnel will be vaccinated against Covid-19 within three weeks of the first immunisation shipment reaching our shores, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

But the country's borders are likely to remain closed to most of the world for the rest of the year, as reopening them poses "too great a risk to our health and economy".

Ardern said the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine would be prioritised for those most at risk of coming into contact with the infection: our frontline border staff and those working in managed isolation.

"Once we receive it we expect to have our border workers vaccinated within two to three weeks," she said on an Instagram post last night.

At the same time the Government would continue to pursue travel bubbles with Australia and the Pacific – despite Australia suspending its one-way travel bubble with New Zealand after confirmation of the Northland community case.

This is something Ardern expressed her "disappointment" to Prime Minister Scott Morrison over, saying New Zealand's situation was "well under control".

But even Ardern admits that things aren't looking as good as they once were when it comes to a full travel bubble between the two countries.

"We are looking to pursue it," she told her post-Cabinet press conference on the bubble.

"[But] it does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level, we haven't ruled out the possibility of state-by-state."

Last close contact of infected Northland woman awaiting test result

Meanwhile director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield today said the result of the last close contact of the infected Northland woman was still to come through.

He said the reason was because it was only taken yesterday.

Bloomfield told ZB's Mike Hosking that did not think MIQ facilities were "too loose" in managing returnees, but procedures were still being reviewed to tighten any gaps that came to light.

He said any expert comments that highlighted flaws in how facilities were operating were always taken seriously.

He told the AM Show 102,000 people had come through MIQ since the facilities were established to manage returning Kiwis last year.

Bloomfield remained confident the Pfizer vaccine would arrive in this country in the first quarter.

Medsafe was expected to give approval for the vaccine next Tuesday at the earliest.

"We are confident of getting the vaccine when we said we'll get it," he said.

The Pullman Hotel, where the Northland woman was believed to have been infected, was audited yesterday. Bloomfield said it was now considered "really unlikely" that she was infected via the facility's air conditioning system.

"We did an audit on the Pullman Hotel yesterday on the infection prevention control. We've expedited a look at the ventilation system. The ventilation system is really unlikely, we haven't seen that as an issue around the globe, but we are not leaving any stone unturned."

Ardern said that looking outside Australia and the Pacific, "we can expect our borders to be impacted for much of this year".

She said for travel to fully restart, two things are needed.

"We either need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don't pass Covid-19 on to others – and we don't know that yet – or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand."

Both possibilities, Ardern said, will take some time.

Meanwhile, data from the Ministry of Health yesterday revealed optimistic information about the Northland case and its limited spread.

After 1500 Covid-19 tests, there is no evidence of a further positive case in the community.

The Ministry of Health said 16 people had now been identified as potential close contacts of the infected woman. Of those, 15 people have returned negative tests, including a household contact of the case.

An additional close contact was still awaiting their test results but the original case is still only one community case in the region.

In the meantime, 154 people have been identified as "casual contacts" – people who are now waiting for tests in isolation.

Ardern also yesterday revealed that the first Covid-19 vaccination could be given the green light for use in New Zealand in just over a week.

But question marks remain around the Government's vaccination timetable.

That is because, according to Ardern, "we will be in the hands of pharmaceutical companies' delivery timelines".

But Ardern is promising that New Zealand's "house will be in order" by the time the first vaccination shipment arrives.

Those first in line, as has previously been flagged, will be border and managed isolation and quarantine workers and their close contacts.

"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," Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said.

But the specific timeline as to when this group will get the vaccine remains unclear – the Government has only committed to the rollout being in the first quarter of the year.

It's a similar story for the rest of the general public, who will be getting a vaccine mid-way through this year, according to Hipkins.

But the reason for the lack of specifics around time was down to the pharmaceutical companies and their delivery times, Ardern said.

"We've spoken in very general terms about our expectation of when we will receive our vaccine because, at this stage for pharmaceutical companies, a lot is changing for them."

She said these companies will be looking at the position of New Zealand compared to other countries where people are dying daily and in large numbers.

"What I can give you an absolute assurance around New Zealand will have its house in order," Ardern said.

"We will be ready to receive it."

Ardern said she expected the vaccine approval process – led by Medsafe – will be completed before the doses start arriving in New Zealand.

"This means we expect there won't be any hold-up and we will be able to take delivery of our first batch of vaccines as soon as Pfizer is able to send them."

Pfizer is just one of a number of pharmaceutical companies New Zealand has bought vaccines from.

In fact, Ardern said the Government had bought a portfolio of vaccines to ensure it had a "diverse portfolio" so it had options.

"If the evidence base becomes more robust about which of the vaccines are more effective for which population groups, we will have options," Hipkins said.









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