New Zealand’s government is considering prioritising south Aucklanders in the coronavirus immunisation rollout as a controversial church leader said she would refuse the vaccine.
No new community cases of coronavirus were recorded for the third consecutive day, reaffirming the government’s cautious optimism that its localised seven-day lockdown has been effective in containing the Auckland February cluster.
The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said 14,671 tests were processed on Wednesday, returning no positive results. Close contacts of the recent confirmed cases were now being tested for a second time, while contact-tracing teams followed up with “casual-plus” contacts at locations where there may have been exposure.
Bloomfield said the results were promising but that it was too soon to consider lifting level 3 restrictions as there had been a significant exposure event within the past week, at the City Fitness gym on Friday. The Auckland lockdown is in place at least until Sunday. Cabinet will discuss a potential alert level change at a meeting on Friday afternoon.
“The wide testing that’s taking place both in Auckland and outside will increasingly provide assurance that we haven’t got onwards transmission into the community,” said Bloomfield. “We’re pretty confident now that we’ve got a sharp parameter around this particular outbreak.”
Two students at Papatoetoe high school, at the centre of the February cluster, had refused to be tested for coronavirus. Bloomfield said he did not know why.
“It may be just a belief system. There is a small number of people who subscribe to a belief that Covid-19 doesn’t actually exist … or it may just be they really, really do not want to have a test.
“But then they are managed – they are isolated and made sure that there is no risk. If they did have Covid, and clearly if they became symptomatic, that would be a different situation.”
With the last two recent coronavirus outbreaks centred in south Auckland, where the airport and most border workers are based, the government is now exploring the possibility of prioritising the community in the immunisation programme.
Two-thirds of the border workforce have now been vaccinated, with their families and household contacts the next priority. That would provide one “layer of protection” for south Auckland, said Bloomfield, and it made sense to prioritise the rest of the community in the wider rollout.
“We would be protecting the wider country by starting to protect that community.”
A public information campaign encouraging people to get the vaccine would get under way soon, said Bloomfield, adding that the support of community leaders would be critical.
It comes as Hannah Tamaki, co-leader of the controversial fundamentalist Christian Destiny Church and Vision NZ political party, told her followers she will not be getting the vaccine.
Tamaki wrote on Facebook on Thursday morning: “We are not the ones to say sorry. The media need to apologise to our people, calling them poor and less intelligent and need to have the Covid vaccine.
“Everything in life is a choice. Make sure you choose for yourself, not be talked into something you are not happy to do.
“I’m not taking the vaccine. That’s my choice.”
Experts have condemned Tamaki’s statement, with vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris telling the New Zealand Herald it was an “extremely harmful” use of her position. “These people are highly respected in their community and they should be basing their communications on good trustworthy information, not misinformation.”
Tamaki and her husband, Brian, left Auckland on Saturday night, telling a congregation in Rotorua on Sunday morning that they wanted to dodge the lockdown. They have since been seen in Te Anau in the South Island ahead of a speaking engagement in Invercargill this weekend.
Brian Tamaki has said he and his wife have acted responsibly, with both rallying against media coverage of their departure.
Bloomfield said that there should not be large gatherings anywhere in the country, which was operating under alert level 2. “Whether it’s the Tamakis or anyone out of Auckland, the request of them has been clear that actually they should be minimising their interaction with large groups of people.”
He said Hannah Tamaki and others who had decided against the vaccine may change their mind, and that he felt confident that the take-up among New Zealanders would be high.