Health Minister Andrew Little at odds with Ministry of Health over $70,000 legal battle to release Māori health data

Health Minister Andrew Little is at odds with his own ministry over a $70,000 legal battle to release Māori health data to help ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations. 

A fortnight ago, the High Court ruled that the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, contracted to fund and support initiatives that deliver for Māori, should receive the data to help target those who still need to be vaccinated. 

But against the wishes of the Health Minister and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield blocked access to the data, over privacy concerns. 

Dr Bloomfield said earlier this week some iwi "felt that that would potentially compromise the relationship between their iwi and the Crown", and even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern conceded that "not all iwi wanted their data released". 

Whānau Ora on Thursday requested an urgent judicial review of the decision by Dr Bloomfield, arguing that the Ministry of Health knows where Māori who are not vaccinated are located, but won't pass on the contact information. 

"The Ministry of Health is playing hard and fast with Māori lives," said Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency chief executive John Tamihere. 

The Ministry of Health's latest update shows just 59 percent of Māori are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with 74 percent of Pacific Peoples and 80 percent across the whole population. 

National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop said it was an "extraordinary" situation and that Little should "front up and take some accountability". 

"What is he doing? He is the Minister of Health," Bishop told reporters. 

"He seems to give most of his time giving interviews to journalists in which he blames the ministry for everything that's going wrong under his watch."

Little acknowledged that the Ministry of Health needs to "carefully weigh the public health need to maximise vaccinations against COVID-19 with its obligations under the Privacy Act as an agency of personal information". 

"What is important to everyone is increasing Māori vaccination uptake," he said in Parliament. "It's my expectation that Te Tiriti principles and the application of tikanga will result in appropriate data sharing."

Little revealed the Ministry of Health had racked up more than $72,000 in legal costs. 

National MP Harete Hipango asked Little in Parliament if he thought the court process was a waste of time and money. 

Little said as a former litigation lawyer he understood "how much litigation can be a complete waste of time and money". 

"I think if you look at the court judgement the fact that the court did not order specific disclosure of data but in fact ordered the ministry to reconsider its decision suggested that the court struggled with where the line was to be drawn between data that should be released that was appropriate and in accordance with the ministry weighing its competing obligations."

Little denied the delay may have contributed to lower vaccination rates among Māori.

"There are a lot of reasons for that, perfectly justifiable reasons, and we always anticipated that it would take extra special effort involving a whole range of parties."

The Government earlier this month approved $23.3 million for eight Māori organisations and iwi aimed at boosting Māori vaccination rates, through the new $120 million Māori Communities COVID-19 Fund.