Health Minister Chris Hipkins criticises National for 'sitting' on sensitive COVID-19 patient information

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has criticised the National Party for "sitting" on sensitive information after it was revealed a second MP was sent confidential COVID-19 patient data. 

Ex-National Party president Michelle Boag earlier this week confessed to sending the information to Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker who then leaked it to the press and has since resigned because of the scandal. 

Boag has now confessed to sending similar confidential data in four unsolicited emails in June to National's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse, who says he did not pass the data to anyone and deleted the emails when he received them. 

Walker said the reason he sent the leaked data to the press was to "expose the Government's shortcomings" because the information he received was not password protected by the Government. 

"It was not stored on a secure system where authorised people needed to log on. There was no redaction to protect patient details, and no confidentiality statement on the document."

Hipkins said the Opposition has the right to question if there have been failings in the handling of information, but said it is "not legitimate to release that information or to sit on that information" and not inform the Government.  

"Issues like this distract a lot of time and energy and focus away from [the COVID-19] response at a time when we want everybody clearly focussed on the most important issue of the day which is to keep people safe from COVID-19," he said on Friday. 

"This is something we encountered in Opposition and we did receive, in some cases, sensitive data, and you'll find examples of that where we went to the Government before going public with any information, to alert them to it."

Hipkins appointed Michael Heron QC earlier this week to lead an investigation into the leaked information - a scandal Hipkins described as having a "ring of dirty politics" to it.

"It is clear that over the course of the last week the National Party have had a lot of information that they have chosen not to share that could have cleared things up much more quickly," Hipkins said. 

Health Minister Chris Hipkins.
Health Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

"Over the weekend both Mr Muller and Michael Woodhouse made some very strong comments about the release of this information and how unacceptable it was when it is clear they knew how it came to be released and chose not to share that information."

National leader Todd Muller said on Friday Woodhouse gave him a "heads up" on Tuesday evening that he'd received a couple of weeks earlier some information that "sounded similar" to the data Walker had released to the press. 

"The next day we had a chat with Michael and we agreed that it would be appropriate for him to circle back to Michael Heron and make him aware of that in case that was useful to his inquiry. We are confirming today that that happened."

But Muller was asked on Thursday if he had sought assurances from his MPs that they knew nothing about data either held by Walker or Boag, and he said: "That issue is sorted from my perspective."

National leader Todd Muller.
National leader Todd Muller. Photo credit: Newshub

Muller said from his point of view, the leaks to Walker and Woodhouse were different because Woodhouse did not release the information to the press. 

"Michael Woodhouse saw this information, didn't act on it, and ultimately deleted it... I have a very clear view that there is an absolute distinction between receiving information and then releasing it publicly."

Muller said he has instructed the National Party caucus to inform his office whenever they receive information of a personal and sensitive nature. 

Boag said she received the confidential information for both leaks as acting CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (ARHT). But ARHT said earlier this week Boag has never had access to any clinical or patient data. 

Boag has resigned from her role at ARHT and is no longer a National Party member. 

Hipkins said he thinks it is "clear" the information wasn't being sent to Boag in her capacity as CEO, but he said that's one of the things the inquiry is looking into. 

He has asked the Ministry of Health to "look closely" at their distribution lists.