New Zealanders should ‘plan to encounter’ Covid before Christmas, expert warns

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New Zealanders who have managed to escape coming into contact with Covid-19 should ready themselves to encounter it by Christmas, a leading epidemiologist has warned, as the country ramps up its vaccine rollout.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced on Monday that the ambitious elimination strategy would soon be phased out as vaccination rates increase. The move has caused some alarm among experts, who warn that a change in strategy and a loosening of restrictions while the vaccination rates are still low could disproportionately affect communities who are vulnerable to the virus, including Māori and Pasifika.The country reported 29 new cases of the Delta variant in the community on Thursday, bringing the total in the latest outbreak to 1,448. Five of Thursday’s cases are in Waikato, the region immediately south of Auckland’s border, with the rest in Auckland.

Just over 77% of New Zealanders over the age of 12 have had their first dose of the vaccine, and 49% are fully inoculated.

Speaking to RNZ on Thursday, epidemiologist Michael Baker said: “Basically I think … all New Zealanders should plan to encounter this virus in the next couple of months and act accordingly.”

Baker added that now is the time to fight it and the best way to do this is through vaccination.

On Thursday the government encouraged people to reduce their time between vaccine doses to three weeks rather than the earlier recommended six weeks, which Baker said is the right move.

“For example, if you have your first dose next week you’d get your second dose three weeks after that at the start of November, and you’d be fully protected by mid-November, so I think that’s really what people should plan to do, and the trouble is, if you have a six-week gap between your two doses, that really pushes that protection right into December, and some people might miss out at that stage.

On Wednesday, the Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, announced further measures to boost vaccination rates, including a “Super Saturday” national day of action on 16 October.

“On that day, we will have vaccine clinics open all through Aotearoa all day and into the evening and a bit like election day, we will be asking all our civic and political leaders to contribute to a big effort to turn people out.”

Communities and health centres are coming up with innovative solutions to help the push, including an Auckland vaccination centre that will pull an all-nighter this weekend.

The Tāmaki Vaccination Centre, led by Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei, Auckland central’s Māori tribe, will open at 8am on Friday and continue vaccinating until 6.30am on Saturday, with a DJ spinning tunes on Friday evening and staff running a barbecue.

The centre aims to reach people who struggle to get to vaccinated during the day, including those who work night shifts.

Meanwhile, Auckland teachers have told RNZ they are deeply worried about the prospect of schools reopening on 18 October, after the school holidays.

Related: ‘Perfect storm’: how Covid is compounding New Zealand’s existing social crises

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association Auckland region deputy chairperson, Paul Stevens, said he was unhappy about it when there was still community transmission of Covid-19.

The government was essentially asking schools to operate at alert level 2 while the rest of Auckland was operating at level 3, he said.

“The 18th of October is coming up very fast, and I think the main thing teachers are feeling at the moment is trepidation about the uncertainty of what it’s going to look like once we go back.”

Hipkins, who is also the education minister, said cabinet would vote on Monday on making Covid-19 vaccinations compulsory for teachers.


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