Ministry health

Department of Health defends legal cost of battle over Maori vaccination data

The Department of Health has said its contentious legal battle with commissioning agency Whānau Ora over the release of data on unvaccinated Maori needs to be tested in court to resolve significant privacy issues. she was lifting.

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

The figure, released under the Official Information Act, includes legal fees the ministry had to pay to the Whānau Ora commissioning agency.

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

The result of a High Court hearing, published on November 1, ruled against the department, asking it to reconsider its decision to withhold the data.

But Chief Health Officer Ashley Bloomfield contacted the agency on Nov. 5 to say the department had reviewed its earlier decision and would not release the information.

Whānau Ora commissioning agency then returned to court to request the data and in December the High Court ruled in its favour.

In her decision, Judge Cheryl Gwyn said Maori vaccination rates were “significantly lower” than other groups and were disproportionately affected by the virus.

Director of the Department of Health’s National Immunization Program Astrid Koornneef said the agency’s request for personal health information raises important legal issues relating to the privacy of individuals, as well as the departmental obligations.

“Given the important legal principles at stake and the helpful clarity provided by the court, the department felt its legal response was appropriate,” she said.

Koornneef said the High Court ruling had helped provide useful guidance for the future publication of personal information about Maori vaccinations.

“The Department has since fulfilled all of its obligations and shared all relevant health information on the vaccination of Maori aged 12 and over with Whānau Ora in accordance with the Court’s decision,” she said.

“It also helped inform the conclusion of a new data sharing agreement with Whānau Ora for the publication of information on tamariki, signed in February.”

Koornneef said throughout the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, the ministry remained committed to increasing Maori vaccination rates.

But Whānau Ora commissioning agency chief executive John Tamihere said the Department of Health should have released the data sooner instead of pursuing an unnecessary legal battle which was a waste of money taxpayers.

John Tamhere. Photo/Alex Burton

He said the department could have saved millions of dollars in publicity and legal costs if it was more willing to work with Whānau Ora’s commissioning agency.

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

And he reserved his most scathing criticism for Chief Health Officer Ashley Bloomfield.

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

Bloomfield and Health Minister Andrew Little were approached for comment.

– by Stephen Forbes, Local Democracy Journalist