COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has responded to accusations that the Government took too long to confirm two new cases of the virus had been detected in the community, arguing health officials have an obligation to ensure the information they disseminate is factually correct.
On Wednesday, it was revealed two people residing in north Auckland returned weak positive results for COVID-19. The recent returnees left the Pullman Hotel, a managed isolation facility, on January 15 and visited a number of locations in the northern suburbs over the following days.
Late on Wednesday night, the Ministry of Health stated that the two infections are being treated as confirmed cases. However, the official announcement came hours after claims from former Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira, who revealed earlier that afternoon two community cases had been detected in Auckland's Ōrewa.
Speaking to Newstalk ZB's Heather du Plessis-Allan on Wednesday afternoon, Harawira said the tip-off came from "multiple and impeccable sources". The former MP said he didn't know why the ministry had been "stonewalling" media outlets seeking confirmation of the cases, but reiterated he knew the information was "true".
When Hipkins appeared on The AM Show on Thursday morning, host Duncan Garner asked the minister why it took so long for the Government to publicly confirm the two cases - and why was it up to Hone Harawira to "tip off the media hours earlier".
Hipkins defended the Government against the accusations, arguing that mass testing campaigns can occasionally return false positive results and historic cases - and officials need absolute certainty before making information public.
"What we do find when we do a big wave of testing like this is we occasionally pick up false positives and historic cases. Those people normally would be re-tested and only once we've got a confirmed test result would we inform the public - and that was the situation with these two cases," he said.
"There was a possibility there they could come back as historic cases - and therefore not cases at all."
Hipkins said he had been informed of the weak positive results by late Wednesday afternoon, with the second results being returned at around 7:30pm.
"We do have to make sure we're dealing with cases… we do have to make sure that when we put facts out there, we're putting facts out there," he reiterated.
"Those who are just picking up bits of information from the community and choosing to share those aren't subject to the same obligation of accuracy."
Preliminary genomic sequencing has indicated the two new cases are linked to a Northland woman who tested positive over the weekend. The woman had also completed her managed isolation period at the Pullman Hotel and had been permitted to leave on the same day, January 15.
Hipkins said the genome sequencing had provided a "very close match", suggesting the three people had been infected at the facility.
According to the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, while the cases could be historical infections, the test results indicate the two people "may have contracted COVID-19 towards the end of their stay in managed isolation, after returning two negative tests each during their stay".
Preliminary genomic sequencing also indicates the two people have been infected with the more contagious South African variant of the virus, the same mutated strain to be detected in the Northland case.
Dr Bloomfield says there is currently "no evidence" of community transmission, but is calling on people to get tested if they are symptomatic or visited the locations of interest.