COVID-19: Andrew Little hits out at medical expert for criticising timing of health sector reforms

Andrew Little is hitting out one of New Zealand's top medical experts who says the Government is picking the worst time for health system reforms.

Health Minister Little last month announced the Government would be scrapping district health boards and replacing them with centralised organisations; Health NZ as well and a separate Māori Health Authority. 

But University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman on Thursday criticised the plan as "lacking" and "not particularly clever timing" - given New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout only recently got underway. 

New Zealand has so far administered 388,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine while 120,000 people have received two doses. 

"I have to say, to blow the health system up when you're trying to vaccinate 4 million people, that's not particularly clever timing, is it?" Dr Gorman said during an interview on The AM Show.

But Little said in a statement to Newshub Dr Gorman was "wrong in just about every respect".

"We have a plan for the vaccination roll-out it’s so far going to plan, we have a plan for the health reforms that will entail, among other things, putting in place a highly skilled set of governing members for both Health NZ and the Māori Health Authority as we seek to re-orient the health system," Little said.

"Professor Gorman has in the past said we need a radical change in our health system, he welcomed the changes when they were announced.

"We have not changed our approach."

It's true Dr Gorman has previously said the health system needs a radical change. In a presentation to MPs last year, he blasted the Government for "squandering" New Zealand's main geographical advantage in the fight against COVID-19. 

Dr Gorman said at the time the pandemic had underlined "significant problems" in the way New Zealand's health system was structured, governed and operated. He said the 20 DHBs were largely autonomous, telling MPs: "What you're looking at is the success of provincialism over rationalism."

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

But on Thursday Dr Gorman criticised the lack of planning in the reforms.

"This is an iterative problem," he said. "We've got to take it away from politicians and away from doctors like me - may I add - and put it in the hands of professional governors and managers." 

Health NZ is expected to take over from the DHBs next year.