Audrey Young: Is Chris Hipkins’ halo slipping?


Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins has got himself into a pickle over the slow pace of New Zealand’s vaccination plan because he has been slow to speak plainly about what is happening.

But with Australia announcing an earlier roll-out in February, and Singapore already having started its vaccinations for border workers, New Zealand’s April roll-out is looking slow compared to similar countries with Covid-19 largely under control.

National and Act have seized on both those factors, the uncertainty over delivery and the faster timetables of others, to paint the picture of the NZ Government taking it easy.

It is an irresistible temptation for an Opposition at a time when unsettling data shows the number of Covid-19 cases being picked up at the border having doubled in the past two weeks.

And why would the Opposition not be buoyed? The Government has finally agreed to introduce pre-flight Covid testing for most arrivals to New Zealand, something it appeared to reject for many months simply because it was being proposed by the Opposition.

After calls for action on vaccines from the Opposition, Hipkins has said that the Government is trying to get some earlier batches of vaccine for 10,000 or so high-risk border workers.

Not trying at all would definitely paint a picture of a Government taking it easy and not trying hard enough.

But Hipkins, the usually plain-speaking minister, has become beige in his descriptions of what is going on.

He is clearly trying to avoid getting into specifics, or setting targets or expectations that might not be met in volatile international conditions.

Hipkins’ halo slipped at the end of last year when he withheld an important and damning report into the Covid response until the week before Christmas.

It’s in danger of slipping further.So far Hipkins has got away with the lack of urgency because there has been no recent incursion of Covid into the community despite the more contagious strains presenting. But that could change in a flash.

National has read the public right on vaccines. There is disquiet about the virulent strains escaping into the community.

And Hipkins has been slow to recognise it and explain what is going on, what is realistic in terms of early delivery of vaccines and what is unreasonable.

The Government is highly sensitive to accusations of non-delivery.

Jacinda Ardern began 2019 proclaiming it to be the Year of Delivery and then spent most of it defending the Government’s record on non-delivery on some big items.

She won’t make that mistake when the Labour ministers and MPs meet today in Nelson for the first time this year.

But nor should the Government dismiss concerns over vaccine supply simply because it is the Opposition raising them.

Singapore got its first vaccines on December 21. New Zealand’s are due to arrive at an indeterminant time in the first quarter of 2021 for a roll-out starting in April.

An explanation is required.

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