Two million free flu vaccines will be available for Kiwis as the vaccination campaign gets underway on Friday, Health Minister Andrew Little has announced.

The Government will this year be making 2 million flu vaccines available – up from an average of 1.4 million – while also widening eligibility for Kiwis who can receive the vaccine for free.

The shot will be available not only for at-risk New Zealanders and those aged 65 and over, but also Māori and Pasifika aged 55 and over.

The $12 million expansion programme is being funded from the Government’s Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

“With the Omicron wave still working its way through the country, we need to protect our most vulnerable from getting the flu as well, and our health system from coming under more pressure,” Little said in a media release.

“We already make the flu shot available for free for everyone over the age of 65, and for those who are pregnant or at risk of becoming seriously ill because of other underlying conditions.

“This winter, on the advice of doctors, we’re widening eligibility to include Māori and Pacific people aged 55 and over, which means an extra 39,000 people can have the vaccine for free.”

Little urged as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

“In an ordinary year, flu kills more than 500 New Zealanders, and this is no ordinary year.”

He said while typically, just half of those eligible for the vaccine take it up, the lack of colds and flu circulating in the community over the past two years amid the Covid-19 pandemic means the community’s immunity levels have lowered.

“I encourage everyone – and especially the most vulnerable – to get vaccinated. Anyone who is part of Group Three for the Covid vaccination rollout should make sure they get a flu shot.”

It comes as University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker warned this year’s flu season could be a tough one for New Zealanders as the borders begin to reopen and immunity wanes.

The program begins from Friday, with vaccinations available from family doctors, pharmacists and some Māori and Pacific health providers, he said.

“We’re looking at ways to increase the vaccination workforce to get flu shots to those who need them. We have trained and authorised many new pharmacist vaccinators over the past two years, including provisional pharmacist vaccinators who are able to administer the influenza vaccine.”