Tuesday 9 March 2021

Good News! Vaccines!

Justin Giovannetti's piece at The Spinoff last week was more than a bit of a worry, because it reflected exactly what I'd been hearing around Wellington as well. Lots of officials weren't seeing vaccination as any way out of the border restrictions. Rather, risk of new variants meant border restrictions would be with us for a lot longer.

He wrote:

Hipkins’s best-case scenario sees, in early 2022, a world not radically different from where we are now. “A series of ongoing incremental changes”, he says, mean we worry less on a daily basis about a virus that is still very much around. Managed isolation and quarantine facilities are still operating at the country’s border, but they’re better at catching the coronavirus. There’s some international travel into the country, and maybe some of it’s Covid-free, but exactly how much is still unknown.

It very much wasn't my view on how things should play out, but if the government wanted to go that way, it seemed time to pull the pin and build border facilities suitable for quarantining tens of thousands of people at a time. 

But today brought rather better news. 

First up, we're likely to be requiring visitors to have been vaccinated. That makes absolute sense, and it's great to see it. Kiwis who don't want to be vaccinated will have to spend time in MIQ instead, hopefully at their own expense if there's no issue in accessing vaccines in the place they're coming from. 

Hipkins said part of the vaccine approach will be keeping records of who has been vaccinated so Kiwis can access their proof of vaccination easily. 

"We will be keeping a record of everyone who has been vaccinated and it's likely that at some future point people will need to access those records to travel internationally."

"If you look at yellow fever, for example, you can only visit some countries if you have a certificate to say you have been vaccinated for yellow fever.

"It's likely that is going to become a pretty global standard around COVID-19 so we need to make sure people can access their records and produce that proof that they have been vaccinated and with what vaccine." 

All of this makes perfect sense.

But it gets better:

"When you have a highly-effective vaccine such as Pzifer, which is 95 perfect effective successful in reducing symptomatic Covid-19, that means basically you're cutting off the virus' opportunity to form a chain of transition."

Opening up borders at the end of the year would coincide with a completion of the roll-out, Ardern said.

She said details about how these moves would be co-ordinated in a way that didn't risk lives or the economy, would be announced later this month.

This is a rather sharp change in tone from last week. Last week, Hipkins sounded like the Ministry of Health - border restrictions forever. This week, the PM says the borders can open when we're all vaccinated. 

Richard Harmon at Politik covers a bit more of the PM's comments:

“The more of us that are vaccinated, that means that there isn’t a path for Covid anymore, and eventually that’s when we will see it globally peter out.”

But that won’t mean an end to the need for vaccines.

“We need to think about this program like the flu,” she said. “It will be something we’ll be doing each year.”

Ardern said that the major part of the vaccination programme would begin in the second half of the year but that she would lay out the schedule by Wednesday.

Now the rug could yet be pulled out from under all of it. If new variants come out that can get around the Pfizer vaccine, then border restrictions may come back. But we have to be able to get to far more risk-sensitive approaches if that happens. 

Even if the vaccine doesn't provide 90%+ protection against new variants, it can still prevent outbreaks. So long as the vaccines keep R0 below 1, we remain in a far different world than we have been in.

The change in tone in all of this is striking, and very very welcome. 

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