Tokyo Olympics: New Zealand athletes to get early access to COVID-19 vaccine

The New Zealand Olympic and Paralympic athletes have been given the green light to apply for early coronavirus vaccinations.

Athletes representing New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics later this year will be able to apply to be vaccinated against COVID-19.   -  AP

Athletes representing New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics later this year will be able to apply to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they depart, the government said on Wednesday.

Chris Hipkins, the minister responsible for New Zealand's response to the global health crisis, said people would be eligible to jump the queue for the vaccine on compassionate grounds or to compete in events of "national significance".

The latter category would include Olympians, Paralympians and the national cricket team, which will be travelling to Britain to play India in the final of the ICC World Test Championship in June.

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"The key yardstick here is people travelling in an official capacity and ensuring their participation is in our national interest," Hipkins told reporters in Wellington. "They will have to make an application, and it will depend on what sort of events they are participating in, to whether they fit the national interest criteria.

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"But certainly, your expectation is that the Olympians would be eligible under the national interest criteria and a national sports team participating in a significant event would also meet those criteria."

New Zealand has been one of the most successful countries at containing the virus and started the second round of its vaccine rollout for border and quarantine workers last week.

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New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) secretary-general Kereyn Smith, who had lobbied for Olympians to be vaccinated early, said the announcement would be a relief to many athletes who were "hanging on the edge of their seats".

"It's not mandatory but we feel it's a very positive and important step in keeping our athletes safe," she told Radio New Zealand.

"They will be with 10,500 athletes from around 206 different countries so we feel for their own personal well being and that of their teammates, it would be a very, very important step."

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The New Zealand team for the last Olympics in 2016 consisted of 199 athletes, who competed in 20 sports in Rio de Janeiro and won 18 medals.