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Ministry of Health defends legal cost of battle over Māori vaccination data

Author
Local Democracy Reporting,
Publish Date
Wed, 6 Apr 2022, 11:32am
Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Ministry of Health defends legal cost of battle over Māori vaccination data

Author
Local Democracy Reporting,
Publish Date
Wed, 6 Apr 2022, 11:32am

The Ministry of Health says its controversial legal battle with the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency over the release of data on unvaccinated Māori had to be tested in court to address the important privacy issues it raised. 

And despite the fact it ended up costing $264,284, it was worth it according to the government department. 

The figure, released under the Official Information Act, includes the legal costs the ministry had to pay to the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency. 

The agency took legal action against the ministry last year for refusing to release details of all eligible Māori in the North Island who had not been vaccinated. 

The outcome of a High Court hearing, released on November 1, ruled against the ministry, asking it to reconsider its decision to withhold the data. 

But Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield contacted the agency on November 5 to say the ministry had reviewed its earlier decision and would not be releasing the information. 

The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency then went back to court to ask for the data and in December the High Court ruled in its favour. 

In her decision Justice Cheryl Gwyn said Māori vaccination rates were "materially lower" than other groups and were disproportionately affected by the virus. 

The Ministry of Health's national immunisation programme director Astrid Koornneef said the agency's request for personal health information raised important legal questions relating to individual privacy, as well as the ministry's obligations. 

"Given the important legal principles at stake, and the useful clarity provided by the court, the ministry considered its legal response appropriate," she said. 

Koornneef said the High Court decision had helped to provide useful guidance for the future release of personal vaccination information about Māori. 

"The ministry has since met all of its obligations and shared all relevant vaccination health information for Māori aged 12 and over with Whānau Ora in keeping with the Court's ruling," she said. 

"It has also helped inform the reaching of a further data-sharing agreement with Whānau Ora for the release of information about tamariki, signed in February." 

Koornneef said throughout the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out the ministry had remained committed to lifting vaccination rates for Māori. 

But Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency chief executive John Tamihere said the Ministry of Health should have released the data earlier instead of continuing with a pointless legal battle that was a waste of taxpayers' money. 

John Tamihere. Photo / Alex Burton 

He said the ministry could have saved itself millions of dollars in advertising and legal costs if it was more willing to work with the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency. 

"It was in the middle of a pandemic and we knew Māori vaccination rates were lagging," Tamihere said. "But it was all about power and control." 

And he saved his most stinging criticism for Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. 

"What are the sanctions against him for this? He could have ended this three months earlier if he had been willing to work with us." 

Both Bloomfield and Minister of Health Andrew Little were approached for comment. 

- by Stephen Forbes, Local Democracy Reporter