Health expert warns government against opening vaccine programme to general population

By Will Trafford

A leading Māori health expert is warning the government about opening up the national vaccine programme to the general population as Māori inoculation rates trail non-Māori and just 20 percent of those considered most vulnerable have had their first dose.

Next Wednesday the first cohort of the general population (Group 4) will be invited to schedule their vaccine on the national Book My Vaccine system. Dr Rawiri Jansen says that’s too soon.

"In the rush to get to group four we might end up swamping out a group that deserves to be prioritised, ought to be prioritised, that is more vulnerable and more at risk, so it troubles me that there is a rush to go to group 4," he told RNZ.

The current vaccination strategy (group 3) targets those aged 65 and over, people with underlying health conditions, the disabled and pregnant women.

Jansen says before the government offers the vaccine to the general population it should prioritise Māori and Pasifika under 65 given they are 50% more likely to die of Covid-19.

"The evidence from Te Pūnaha Matatini is clear that the age-equivalent risk for Māori is 21 years younger. So a 65-year-old pākehā has the same risk as a 44-year-old Māori person. There's the evidence, there's the science - we should be following that science and adjusting our programme to match."

Greypower also concerned

Jansen’s not alone with his concerns of the general population swamping vaccination availability. Grey Power national health advisory group chairperson Jo Millar says low vaccination rates with the elderly also need to be tackled before moving onto the general population.

“To be honest with you, our generation doesn't push forward. We do sit back and wait our turn, and we've probably waited for our turn a bit too long."

Millar said she was concerned about the openness of the vaccine programme given some 120,000 people from Group four have been vaccinated already.

“People are people and they look after themselves first and we've had queue jumpers from group four already being vaccinated."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is defending the government’s move to allow Group 4 bookings as in line with the vaccine timeline established in March.

“The numbers of people in group 3 who have been vaccinated across the country will be uneven. What we want to do though is keep the overall vaccine programme moving forward on a nationally coordinated basis,” he said.

Countries including Canada, Australia and the United States have all established vaccination programmes that prioritise indigenous populations. When asked by RNZ if he was comfortable the right people have been prioritised in Aotearoa, Hipkins simply answered ‘yes’.