Christopher Luxon says Government's World Health Organization health policy 'has nothing to do' with online conspiracies

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: Newshub.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has hit back against claims the Coalition Government's decision to lodge a reservation against adopting amendments to the World Health Organization's (WHO) health regulations was influenced by online conspiracy theories.   

It comes after Labour leader Chris Hipkins on Thursday said the new Government appeared to be "dancing dangerously close to endorsing conspiracy theories" in several areas. Labour health spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall said she was concerned online "rubbish" about the WHO had made its way into the coalition agreement.   

The Coalition Government's new 100-day action plan said that by Friday, it would "lodge a reservation against adopting amendments to WHO health regulations to allow the Government to consider these against a 'national interest test'."   

That policy is also found in the National-New Zealand First coalition agreement, which says a national interest test should be used to reconfirm that "New Zealand's domestic law holds primacy over any international agreements".   

The International Health Regulations, which outline rights and obligations for countries during public health events and to which amendments are being proposed, are an instrument of international law that are legally binding on the 194 WHO member states.    

But states still have sovereignty to implement their own domestic legislation as they wish and health law academics say the WHO has no enforcement power against member states.   

The WHO and its work on measures to combat pandemics have been the subject of online conspiracies, which the organisation's director-general has called "false" and "lies" that could endanger future generations.   

But speaking to reporters on Auckland on Friday, Luxon said the Government's policy "has nothing to do" with conspiracy theories about the WHO.     

"This is about just simply a new Government coming in place that's been in power just for three to four days, that has a decision upon itself," he said.     

"We want to be diligent and conscientious to make sure that when we sign up for things we can deliver and meet our commitments, but also importantly, that New Zealand's interests come first, that a national interest test needs to be performed before we actually sign up to international agreements and that's a pretty reasonable position to be in."     

Asked about Labour's criticisms, he replied: "No disrespect, I don't listen to the Labour Party".     

On Thursday, Dr Verrall said the proposed amendments were intended to make sure that if another disease with "pandemic potential" comes along, "there is an early warning given out across the word".       

"Imagine if that system worked at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, and we didn't have a pandemic. It is incredibly important that we have international health regulations that work."       

She said she would be making sure "none of the conspiracy theories that we hear about on the internet with respect to the WHO seep into New Zealand's approach to those regulations".        

"I'm deeply concerned that I see that sort of rubbish about the WHO and international health regulations on the internet and all of a sudden it's in a coalition document."       

Former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, who more recently co-chaired a panel reviewing the WHO's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, tweeted on Friday that the new Government's policy was "cringeworthy".     

"Govt's decision to enter a reservation on a minor 2022 amendment to International Health Regulations doesn't bode well for NZ playing a constructive role in broader reform of international law around #pandemic preparedness & response," she said.     

Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, told RNZ he was baffled by the policy.   

"Frankly, I find the points being made about these international health agreements incoherent, and I just do not know what they're doing there... I am baffled by seeing this clause in the agreement because in many ways, it's just stating what New Zealand already does."     

The New Zealand First election manifesto includes a promise to require a national interest test "to stop us being dictated to by the United and agencies like the WHO".