Ministry of Health accused of inflating COVID-19 vaccination rates, putting Māori lives at risk with flawed data

The Ministry of Health is facing accusations of inflating COVID-19 vaccination rates and needlessly putting Māori lives at risk due to flawed data.

Independent research has revealed a gaping hole of as many as 100,000 Māori in official data, prompting calls for an independent inquiry.

Folks are still trickling in for the jab at Henderson's vaccination drive-through despite the COVID-19 fatigue.

This site is operated by Te Whānau o Waipareira. The chief executive is former Labour MP John Tamihere, who's joined a chorus of Māori accusing the Ministry of Health of inflating vaccination rates.

"There's no doubt that one day we will get an apology from Dr Ashley Bloomfield, no doubt about that," said Tamihere.

His gripe centres on the ministry's decision to use what's called 'Health Services Utilisation' data to track vaccine uptake. It's based on who engaged with the health system.

"If you were part of the health system in 2020, ka pai, you'll be captured - but if you weren't, then you might not be captured," said Matthew Tukaki, who heads up the Māori Authority.

The problem is Māori engage less with often expensive health services, leaving a gaping hole in the data.

"In Auckland alone, 60,000 Māori didn't attend a GP service over the course of the year in which this was chosen," Tamihere explained.

What that means is that Māori assumed they'd achieved herd immunity when they hadn't, and people got sick.

Researcher Dr Rawiri Taonui has found the ministry's data differs from Stats NZ's estimated Māori population by at least 100,000 people.

"In the 12+ age group, the official figures say 91.3 per cent of Māori are vaccinated, but the real figure's a lot closer to 85 percent," said Māori COVID-19 data analyst Rawiri Taonui.

The Government says it's in a tough position.

"Look, we have to choose a reliable data set and use it consistently so that we can track our progress," said Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall.

"There is no perfect data set but we've chosen the one that we believe will give us the best information and allow us to track progress."

But with Māori making up more than 50 percent of Delta cases, calls for an independent inquiry into the vaccine response are growing.

"I do think a Royal Commission of Inquiry will be necessary because another pandemic will come," said Tamihere.

A lesson in the inequities of healthcare, but Māori still want answers.

Ministry of Health responds

In a statement to Newshub, a ministry spokesperson said it uses health service utilisation (HSU) data because it is health-specific and provides a greater level of information when estimating vaccine uptake, in particular for specific population groups such as Māori or other ethnicity groups when compared to other available data sets, such as the 2018 Census.

"At the time it was adopted, the HSU was the most accurate and complete set of data that could be produced. It was used in combination with a comprehensive range of sources to ensure the data is as robust as it possibly can be to inform the rollout," they said.

"We do acknowledge that the use of HSU data - as with any data set - has some limitations, with a number of people potentially not included because they have had no interaction with the health system in a given year. In addition, the ethnicity with which someone identifies in the Census is not always the same as their ethnicity as recorded in the NHI data, which also creates differences between the data sets.

"However, the advantage of using this data, which includes peoples' DHB of residence, is that it provides a stable health-specific population denominator on which to base vaccination targets. Unlike the Stats NZ data, the HSU data can be split by sub population (e.g level 2 ethnicity), which is important when rolling out an immunisation programme at a local level.

"Notwithstanding the limitations and variations within the data, which we have already outlined publicly, we can have confidence that a very high proportion of New Zealanders are vaccinated against COVID-19."