Opposition parties have clashed with Government over its vaccine roll-out after it was revealed it took weeks to meet with Pfizer in 2020, but Chris Hipkins says there was hundreds of options on the market at the time and no information available if they worked.
The drug manufacturer first wrote to the Government in June last year about their willingness to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020.
National's Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop revealed on Wednesday it took six weeks before the Government began negotiations about supplying New Zealand's roll-out.
Bishop said the delay indicates the "disgracefully negligent" way that Government went about procuring the country's vaccines.
"While other countries were signing bilateral advance purchase agreements with manufacturers, our Government was sitting on its hands.
"By the time Government got its act together to get into position to negotiate agreements, other countries had already concluded theirs."
Hipkins, the Covid-19 Response Minister, defended the Government's process in securing supply, stressing that during that time there were dozens of manufacturers offering vaccines.
"When we agreed the vaccine strategy in May 2020 there were over 200 vaccine candidates in development and there was no information available on whether any of those vaccines worked."
New Zealand's final agreement with Pfizer to supply the country's roll-out was signed in December, but the Government had been in talks with other suppliers before the sign-off.
Bishop added that Kiwis are "paying the price for the Government's incompetence" as other countries who were quick to sign agreements received their doses earlier.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has also slammed the Government's delay in meeting with Pfizer, adding New Zealand First would have fast tracked funds had they known about the letter.
Four days after the Government put money aside for a vaccine negotiating team, officials met with Pfizer on August 14 2020.
Peters said the lack of urgency in relaying the vaccine manufacturer's eagerness negatively impacted on New Zealand's supply.
"It is clear we had the capacity to be front of the queue for vaccinations and delivery, but this critical information was never shared with us at the time and discussions about funding contracts didn't occur until months later."
Calling it "inexcusable", he said the delay has ultimately cost New Zealanders with "devastating affects" as the country continues to grapple with its Delta variant outbreak.
“It is inexcusable that this delay not only occurred but was first kept and delayed from cabinet. It has clearly caused the devastating flow-on effects we are seeing today in Auckland and around New Zealand.
Hipkins told media on Wednesday it was hard to know whether vaccine delivery would have been more prompt if New Zealand had ordered more in its first batch.
He said that Government had continued talks with Pfizer throughout those six weeks before a meeting was set up, while assessing which vaccines would be best for New Zealand.
"Our strategy had to be designed to ensure New Zealand would have options that were robust enough for a wide range of external factors that could occur, like failures of vaccines at phase three trials, manufacturing and scaling up difficulties.
"The procurement process was entirely novel as a result. Yes, this approach took time to design and resource, but it has proved its worth.”
Hipkins said Government is continuing to learn from steps taken earlier on in the pandemic and its vaccine roll-out as it adjusts New Zealand's Covid-19 response.
It was announced on Wednesday that more than two million New Zealanders have had their second Covid-19 vaccine.
New Zealand is positioned as one of the slowest countries in the OECD for its vaccination roll-out, which opened up to all eligible New Zealanders from August 2021.