Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins today confirmed a start date of January 17 for children aged between five and 11 to begin receiving reduced doses of the Covid-19 vaccinations.
There are 476,000 children between those ages, who will become eligible to get their first dose from this date, and their second dose at least eight weeks later.
Hipkins says, "while Covid-19 generally has milder effects in children, with symptoms similar to a cold, some children become severely ill and require hospitalisation. In the most recent outbreak, 24% of cases have been aged 11 or under.
"As we have seen with adults, if your child is infected with Covid-19 they may transmit the virus to other people. Immunising five to 11-year-olds helps protect whānau members whose health makes them more vulnerable to Covid-19.”
Paediatrician Dr Danny De Lore (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) says there are concerns of outbreaks in schools, hence the need to vaccinate that age group.
"We know transmission does occur between children and from children. It's probably less than in adults but, certainly, one of the factors considered for the pediatric vaccine to be made available is the possibility of outbreaks in schools, and the virus basically circulating around schools, which are basically hubs within the communities."
The Ministry of Health is working with iwi, DHBs, hauora providers, and community organisations to roll out the Pfizer vaccine to children in ways that suit whānau and communities.
While there are no plans for a school-based immunisation programme, schools are being considered as community vaccination sites. This will add capacity to the vaccination network and make it even easier for families to get vaccinated.
“The government is strongly encouraging parents to have their children vaccinated against Covid-19, but I want to be clear that this is a choice for parents. The government has no intention of making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for anyone in this age group,” Chris Hipkins said.
The cabinet also agreed yesterday to reduce the wait between a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and a booster shot from six months to four months.
The Covid-19 technical advisory group recommended shortening the period between the second dose and a booster dose as a pragmatic step, in line with other countries.
"We know booster vaccinations significantly lift an individual's immunity, reducing the spread and the severity of Covid-19," Hipkins said.
"That means about three million vaccinated New Zealanders will be able to get their booster before the end of February."
Hipkins says bringing the wait time forward will mean those, particularly Māori who have only recently become fully vaccinated, will now be able to receive their booster before winter.
Workers who are currently subjected to mandated vaccinations, such as border and healthcare workers, will also be required to have a booster shot.
"Initially, it will be for those workers who are most likely to come into contact with Omicron.
"They will be required to have their booster by the end of January or not later than six months after their second dose for those who have double vaccinated.
"This will then apply to all others covered by a vaccination mandate from March 1,"
National's Covid-19 Response spokesperson, Chris Bishop, is welcoming the shortened time.
“National noted a week ago that Australia had gone to a five-month gap and the United Kingdom had gone to three months and called on the New Zealand government to look at doing the same as a matter of urgency.
“The evidence is that a three-dose regime of the Pfizer vaccine provides about the equivalent level of protection against Omicron as two doses do against Delta. So we need as many people to get booster vaccines as possible.
“It’s important we quickly roll out boosters to everyone working at the border and on the frontline of our health workforce. It’s good news that half of the eligible border workers have had a booster dose already," Bishop says.
While there were no new cases of Omicron in Aotearoa today, the cabinet has introduced a number of precautionary measures to keep the new variant out of the community for as long as possible.
“All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible Covid-19 variant yet and public health advice says that soon, every case that comes into MIQ will be Omicron,” Chris Hipkins said.
“But experts still don’t know how severe it is. So while it’s sweeping the globe at a bewildering speed and appears to be the dominant variant, how sick it makes people and the impact it has on health systems is not yet fully understood.
“With over 70 countries around the world reporting Omicron cases and its high transmissibility, our plan is to get as prepared as we can by speeding up boosters and strengthening our border to keep Omicron out of the community for as long as possible."
Hipkins says New Zealand has an advantage in the battle against Omicron with the high rate of vaccination, closed borders and the time of year.
“But we need to do more. Parts of the world are going back into lockdown and experiencing major disruption and, with these extra steps, we aim to keep Omicron at bay to ensure New Zealanders get the break they deserve and businesses can remain open.
“We are fortunate we still have MIQ in place. Without it, Omicron would already be in the community and Christmas plans would be under threat."
To further strengthen the border, the government is shortening the pre-departure test requirement from 72 hours to 48 hours before travel, while also investigating the need for non-New Zealanders entering Aotearoa to have received a booster to assist in picking up more people with the virus before they get on a plane.
“And we’ve sought advice on implementing a requirement for all non-New Zealand citizens entering to New Zealand to have had a booster dose before flying.
“We are also making a temporary change to MIQ that increases the length of stay from seven to 10 days. Currently, returnees do their final three days of isolation at home. Bringing those final three days back into MIQ reduces the risk of the virus entering the community."
Hipkins also confirmed today the non-MIQ travel with Australia, due to begin on January 17 will now be pushed back to the end of February in an attempt to further prevent any risk of Omicron.
“There’s no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans but it’s important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans.
“Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls and we have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary. "