Dr Ashley Bloomfield insists the Ministry of Health has been sharing critical data with Māori health providers to boost vaccination rates, despite community leaders and the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency maintaining the information has not been released.
The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, a cross-government programme with a kaupapa Māori approach, is taking legal action against the Ministry of Health for its refusal to release individual-level data on Māori who have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19. In the ongoing stoush, the agency has repeatedly requested the ministry to provide the contact details of unvaccinated Māori across the North Island, which would allow the team to target specific individuals and boost uptake among vulnerable communities. The ministry had rejected its request, citing privacy concerns.
Last week, Whānau Ora returned to court for a further attempt at obtaining the data. It follows a High Court hearing earlier this month which ruled against the ministry, asking it to reconsider its refusal to withhold the data. On November 5, Dr Bloomfield - the Director-General of Health - contacted the agency to say the ministry had reviewed its earlier decision and still would not be releasing the information. He argued that sharing data for the North Island would not be as effective as releasing more localised information, due to variations in Whānau Ora's coverage.
During an interview with Waatea News on November 12, Bloomfield said the ministry had agreed to provide the agency with information on unvaccinated Māori in Auckland and Hamilton, arguing the Ministry of Health has, and will continue to, share data with Māori providers and iwi.
Bloomfield doubled-down on his comments on Friday, telling The AM Show that information has been "flowing for some months" and work is underway to get a "data-sharing agreement" in place.
"We've been working very closely with Māori providers and iwi right around the motu for some months now and providing data, which has been used to great effect to increase vaccination rates in Te Tai Tokerau [Northland] but also around the country," he said.
Bloomfield said a hui was held on Thursday between the Ministry of Health, Northland iwi, health providers and Whānau Ora to determine which iwi would be willing to have their data shared more broadly.
"Now we've got that feedback, we can move really quickly to get a data-sharing agreement in place and make sure for those iwi, [whether] they either would like the data themselves, or [if] they're happy for the Whānau Ora collective to have it, we can get that information to them," he said.
"There has been information flowing for some months and that has really supported the [vaccination] efforts to date."
But it appears not everyone is on the same page. Following Bloomfield's interview with Waatea News last Friday, Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency chief executive John Tamihere claimed earlier this week that the data had still not been shared with the agency.
"We've received nothing," he said, as reported by RNZ on Wednesday. "Someone's not telling the truth."
Tamihere said a team from the Whānau Ora provider, Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust, had only just returned from Northland after delivering almost 3000 vaccinations over seven days. He said if the provider had access to the individual-level data on who had yet to be vaccinated in the region, staff could have taken a more targeted approach.
"We could have done double that because of our capacity, but we were fishing, we didn't know where we were going," Tamihere said. "Why would you impair an organisation that you know can deliver? It's disgraceful."
On Thursday, former Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira, the chief executive of the iwi-led checkpoint group Te Tai Tokerau Border Control, told The AM Show he was supporting Whānau Ora's call for the Ministry of Health to release the individual-level data. Harawira agreed that Māori providers need to take a targeted approach - but to do that, they require the critical data to identify where the unvaccinated are.
"If I've got a 1000 people in my community, but there's only 20 that are unvaccinated, do I really need to be doing a [scattered] approach and chase all 1000? Or do I just focus on the 20? That's the information the Ministry of Health has refused to provide to us for months. If we had that, we'd be a lot higher than we are now," Harawira said. "So that's the first thing: release that data immediately."
When asked by The AM Show host Eric Young if the Ministry of Health could be providing more data, Bloomfield said the information cannot be released without proper protocol in place.
"We are open to and are receiving requests regularly from iwi, from iwi leaders, for data and information, but we can't just release it without having the proper protocol in place and knowing that the information is going somewhere where they've got good [data] security protocols in place. That is being handled appropriately," he said.
"I also know Hone [Harawira] is working closely with the Māori health providers up there and others who do have [that] data."
When pressed as to what the "proper protocol" is, Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health has been releasing data on those who are already enrolled with the providers.
"The important thing is we have been handing the information over already to those hauora providers up in Te Tai Tokerau and around the country. We have been handing over the information for their enrolled population - the issue we're working through with Whānau Ora, and other providers and iwi, is handing over data on people who are not enrolled with those organisations, but may still be unvaccinated," he said.
"Those are the discussions we're having and yesterday, our team had those discussions with Northland iwi, providers and Whānau Ora, and they've reached a position in which iwi will be happy for their data to be shared - so we'll progress that."
Whānau Ora says the individual-level data will allow its teams to specifically target unvaccinated individuals and further boost uptake among Māori, who have the lowest rates of vaccination by ethnicity. As of November 14, only 57 percent of eligible Māori in Northland are fully vaccinated - 61 percent of eligible Māori are fully vaccinated nationwide. Comparatively, 73 percent have received both doses in Auckland.