Health Minister Chris Hipkins urges Kiwis to use 'free speech responsibly' after time wasted investigating 'malicious' rumours

Chris Hipkins has called on Kiwis to stop spreading "malicious" lies about COVID-19 patients - and that includes politicians.

The Health Minister says because the origin of the new outbreak is a "puzzle", health officials are following up pretty much any lead they can get.

"You do want to investigate credible leads where you see them, because sometimes they can help us solve this puzzle," he told Magic Talk's Road to the Election on Sunday.

"This one's a real puzzle because we don't know how the first person to be infected got it... But people just making stuff up and spreading it and sharing it? That's malicious." 

His comments came after a viral - no pun intended - post on Facebook earlier this week made false claims about the virus escaping from a quarantine facility. Newsrooms around the country were inundated with requests from the public to publish it, despite there being no evidence any of it was true. 

"There was one particularly virulent post yesterday that made some allegations about one of the people who had tested positive, alleging they had broken into a managed isolation facility to see their alleged boyfriend. None of that was true," said Hipkins.

"Of course it was properly investigated... that was really, really unfair on that family, on that particular person. There's no shame in having COVID-19 - it's a virus, people catch viruses - but then to have all these allegations made about you and for it to spread so widely? That's really unfair."

The post followed a claim by the Deputy Prime Minister last week that he'd heard from a "reliable" journalist health officials knew the outbreak stemmed from a breach at the border. 

"I think, when that comes out very shortly, in a matter of maybe less than a day, we'll find out that was the case. But you don't always find out from your officials," Winston Peters told Australian media. "You don't always find out from the experts. It's something you sort of find out by contact with other people."

Chris Hipkins and Winston Peters.
Chris Hipkins and Winston Peters. Photo credit: Getty/The AM Show

Hipkins later said there was no evidence for Peters' claims, and urged him - and everyone in New Zealand - to stop sharing unsubstantiated rumours.

"Please, everybody, hold back from sharing information that isn't completely verifiable... We still have free speech here, but my message to everyone is exercise your right to free speech responsibly. Don't go spreading information if you can't verify the source of it. We're going to great lengths every day to do a full briefing at one o'clock every day that puts out the facts. 

"We work really hard to double- and triple-check those facts - now every now and then, even then there will still be the odd slip-up... Rely on that information, not some Facebook meme that somebody's shared."

The "slip-up" Hipkins referred to was Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield naming an Auckland high school as having a confirmed link to a case, when it didn't. Hipkins on Saturday said Dr Bloomfield was "given wrong speech notes".

"Obviously we'll look to tighten that process up as much as we can," he told Newshub Nation. "That could easily have happened to me as well, so we're tightening up that process around preparation for those media briefings... When we release information at one o'clock, it's got to be absolutely rigid and robust."