NZ PM Ardern abandons Maori vaccine target

Sixty-eight per cent of Maori are vaccinated compared with 83 per cent of the overall population.
Sixty-eight per cent of Maori are vaccinated compared with 83 per cent of the overall population.

Amid considerable disagreement, Jacinda Ardern's government has walked away from a Maori-specific vaccination target as part of New Zealand's COVID-19 reopening plans.

On Friday, Ms Ardern set the 90 per cent target to see New Zealand end nationwide lockdowns and shift to a new system giving vaccinated Kiwis more freedoms.

The benchmark is very high by international standards - including a 90 per cent benchmark for each of NZ's 20 regional health areas - but in line with Ms Ardern's strict focus on public health.

"It's the best way of saying no matter where you live in the country, we have good rates, and no matter who you are," she said.

The decision contradicts Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, who last month said his desired Maori vax target was "90 per cent and above".

"It's no good for anybody if there are communities or groups that have got low vaccination rates ... we are intent on getting vaccination rates at 90 and above for all our groups," he said.

At the time Ms Ardern agreed, saying she wanted "an equitable outbreak that does see our Maori, our Pacific, our rural, our isolated communities with high rates".

Maori are both more likely to catch COVID-19 and more likely to suffer worse health outcomes if they do.

Just 68 per cent of Maori have been vaccinated to date, compared with 83 per cent of the overall population.

Instead, the government has committed $NZ120 million ($A115 million) for Maori groups - half towards vaccination programs, and half towards COVID-19 prevention.

This fund was revealed by AAP as a request of Maori organisations at a series of secret government consultations last weekend.

Maori Affairs Minister Willie Jackson led those consultations, which brought together dozens of Maori leaders from across the country.

"We felt an obligation to talk," he told AAP.

"I got asked the question, 'Is the traffic light system coming in, yes or no, is it a fait accompli?' he said.

"I said 'absolutely it's a fait accompli'. So what should we get in terms of Maori?"

Participants described the meetings as challenging, with many airing a wide range of opinions.

One group, the Iwi Chairs Forum - who Mr Jackson labelled "fundamentalists" - wanted a return to a strict level four lockdown to bring case numbers down.

"I said to them, 'it's not for you to tell us in Auckland to go to level four, you don't live in a two to three bedroom state house with 10 bloody kids going nuts'," he said.

Mr Jackson acknowledged the government might have introduced the $NZ120 million Maori fund sooner.

"Should we have done that at the start? Well there was considerable investment. Was it enough? Probably not," he said.

Mr Jackson said internal clashes over how to best protect and vaccinate Maori during the pandemic were among the toughest of his political career.

"We're caught in a bind as Maori ministers. We're trying to push our people through, but we already know that a lot of pakeha (non-Maori) people are 20 per cent ahead of us," he said.

"You try and balance your cultural obligations ... with where most pakeha people are. And business.

"We don't just serve Maori. We're part of a mainstream party that has responsibilities. I can't just operate irresponsibly."

The Maori Party co-leaders said the new system was a "real life Squid Game" which would see Maori deaths.

Under the plans, fully vaccinated Aucklanders are likely to regain freedoms in early December.

Australian Associated Press