New national booking system for COVID-19 vaccine – Expert Reaction

The government plans to offer the vaccine to the rest of New Zealand’s adult population – Group 4 – starting from 28 July, timed by people’s age-groups.

Remaining Kiwis will be invited to book their two vaccine doses using a new website and phone booking system, ‘Book My Vaccine’. Those aged 60 and over will be invited to book from 28 July, while people aged 55 and over will be asked from about 11 August. After that the roll-out timing is more indicative, depending on vaccine supply.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“The Prime Minister announced today the anticipated timing for different age groups becoming eligible for vaccination, working down through the age groups between now and the end of the year. This schedule will make it easy for people to know when they are eligible and to invite them to book their vaccinations. There will also be mass vaccination events targeted at specific groups such as Māori and Pacific populations and rural communities.

“As people become eligible, they will be able to book their vaccinations through a national booking system, either online or on the phone. It’s good that this will let people make book appointments for both doses, so that we make sure everyone goes back for the second dose they need to become fully immunised. This is crucial because data from overseas shows that for new variants, the second dose is really needed for the vaccine to be effective.

“New Zealand will need really high levels of vaccine coverage to protect our population from COVID-19. The virus has evolved to become more infectious and this means that more people need to be vaccinated to get the same level of protection for the population.

“It is encouraging that the number of people intending to get vaccinated has steadily increased over time as confidence in the safety of the vaccine has grown stronger. Getting vaccinated doesn’t just protect you, it also protects those around you – including people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons. There is uncertainty over exactly how many people need to be vaccinated to reach population immunity, which will be critical for eventually allowing safe border reopening. But we do know that every person who gets vaccinated takes us a step closer to this.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.”

Professor Tava Olsen, University of Auckland Business School, comments:

“My impression is that this all seems very sensible. I am relieved that the government has decided to coordinate the process centrally, as our DHBs differ greatly in their ability to deliver programmes like this.

“Of course, the devil is in the details. Will the Book My Vaccine website work as promised? What vaccination sites will it link to, and will they be able to deliver at a pace in line with the bookings? How have these capacities being determined?

“There are always ‘no shows’ for any booking system – so what buffer has been worked through to ensure a balance between people waiting and vaccinators not sitting idle?

“It sounds like the media walk-through announced for next week will give more logistics details. So it sounds promising at this point, but there are not yet enough details to be able to give many comments.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Arindam Basu, Epidemiologist, School of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The vaccine rollout plan for Group 4 is age-based, with the assumption that younger people are less vulnerable, and less likely to suffer from adverse consequences of COVID-19, than older people. Therefore, younger people can wait till older people are vaccinated. Given the logistics of vaccine delivery, and what is known about the nature and pattern of COVID-19 infections so far, this strategy seems based on best current evidence. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

“First, this strategy may work for the New Zealand population because of our successful elimination strategy, and as long as we do not have new waves with emergent strains – such as the Delta variant – where age does not seem to protect against infection or adverse consequences. This means younger people are vulnerable to these new strains in the interim, while they are waiting to be vaccinated. So border controls and precautionary practices still need to be emphasised, with scanning of QR codes and masks to be worn while the vaccination process is underway – at least until such time as all eligible people are vaccinated with both doses.

“Second, any border control relaxation policies must then be taken with evidence-based input from modelling exercises, as the Prime Minister alluded to.

“Third, while leaving it up to people to sign up themselves for slot bookings is sensible from an administrative and governance perspective, it carries a risk of missing some vulnerable people who may not have access to electronic devices or other ways of getting themselves booked.

“Fourth, I have the impression that age as a determinant of vulnerability to COVID-19 was pre-eminent in the decision-making about the vaccine rollout, but it is good to keep in mind that within age-groups, vulnerability varies. So more clarity is needed on how vulnerable groups within Group 4 would be addressed in deciding vaccination order.

“Finally, it is important to note there is a risk of breakthrough infections, even with extremely-high vaccine coverage with a highly effective strain, so a public awareness campaign is key to allay any misunderstanding about vaccination once restrictions are relaxed. A commendable aspect of this vaccine rollout, and the government’s overall policy, is the “team of five million” approach. As Dr Bloomfield made clear, there is a need for patience as everyone will eventually be vaccinated, for setting clear expectations, and for conforming to the policy of transparency that has been the mainstay of NZ’s approach to addressing COVID-19.”

No conflict of interest.