9 Dec 2021

Crown fronts Waitangi Tribunal on Covid response

6:41 pm on 9 December 2021

The Crown defended its pandemic response for Māori before the Waitangi Tribunal on Thursday, arguing that equity has been a consideration at every step.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield Photo: Rob Dixon

It also emerged the Director General of Health had advised the government to prioritise Māori over the age of 50 early in the vaccine rollout, but this was not taken up by the government.

Thursday was day four of a special hearing into the Covid-19 response and the vaccine rollout, inquring into whether there have been breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Bloomfield, and the director of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout Jo Gibbs, fronted the Tribunal for nearly three hours of questioning.

The Group 3 priority bracket for the vaccine rollout included anyone over the age of 65, but Bloomfield said he had advised that the age should be 50 for Māori and Pasifika.

"Indeed, this was in very early discussions as part of our advice to government," he said. "There was option here to look at a lower range for Māori and Pacific people because of the poorer health profile."

Gibbs said it was to factor in particular vulnerabilities for Māori.

"The Ministry of Health recommendation was that an adjustment of 15 years be applied," she said. "The Cabinet decision was made and what we implemented was a whānau-centred approach."

The government's lack of prioritisation for Māori at the beginning of the rollout has been one of the core criticims of claimants participating in the inquiry.

But Bloomfield said he was comfortable that the so-called whānau-centred approach was enough to protect Māori communities. He said a more relaxed approach was adopted over who was considered vulnerable.

For the past three days, the Tribunal has heard from Māori health providers, experts and iwi leaders who have said they were sidelined, ignored and underfunded throughout the pandemic.

Chief executive of Te Arawhiti, the Māori-Crown relations ministry, Lil Anderson, said those frustrations had been made well and clear in a range of hui, and that was reflected in advice to ministers.

"We relayed concerns expressed by Māori freely and frankly during engagement about proposed government decisions. We provided our own assessment about the quality of the Crown's engagement on these significant matters," she told the Tribunal.

But Bloomfield said equity has been a consideration at every step, and that it had worked closely with Māori in the rollout right throughout.

He said it was decided early on that Māori health providers and Māori-led initiatives would need to be adequately resourced.

"We've been very aware right from the start of the Covid response of our obligations to work within the Treaty of Waitangi framework and in partnership," he said.

"So a focus on that and on equity has been something we have strived to do right from the start."

With the move to the traffic light system, Bloomfield said he was aware of Māori concerns about the shift away from the elimination strategy.

Acknowledging a higher risk of Covid spreading, he said he was confident other measures under the system would add protection.

"We noted that the most vulnerable parts of the community would continue to need protections over and above just vaccination, over and above our core public health measures," he said.

No ministers fronted the hearing, but in an affidavit provided to the Tribunal, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the government knew unvaccinated Māori would be put at greater risk by entering the traffic light system, but steps were taken to minimise this risk.

He said social licence for lockdowns was rapidly eroding, and a change needed to be made. Written questions will be submitted to Hipkins on Friday.

Māori health providers also told of frustration at being sidelined early on in the pandemic for initatives like drop in clinics, or mobile vaccine centres, which could have raised Māori vaccination rates sooner - particularly in remote communities like Northland and Tairāwhiti.

A deputy secretary at Te Puni Kōkiri, Grace Smit, told the Tribunal that this frustration was made very clear to her ministry.

"I've heard some of the frustrations expressed about support that has been made for Māori, including the time it has taken to provide Māori with resources and funding.

"I want to acknowledge that the frustrations have been building for many months in our communities... they reflect the context of targetted funding only being made available specifically since the 22nd of October, effectively six weeks ago."

Smit acknowledged that some providers had been frustrated by bureaucratic sluggishness, but that in most instances, money was getting out from TPK within a week.

For the Ministry of Health, Gibbs said there were issues getting adequate resource and supplies to these providers, particularly early on. On top of that, supply constraints and refrigeration requirements for the Pfizer vaccine also made such approaches difficult.

The Tribunal has this week heard from Māori leaders who have criticised offcials' attitude as patronising and insulting, also saying the consultation sought with them felt tokenistic.

Bloomfield said there were clearly things that needed working on.

"If we are hearing there is still a disconnect, we need to keep engaging and look at ways we can and should be doing things better," he said. "It's important we listen to that sense that there is a disconnect still and get to the bottom of why that might be felt.

"We certainly feel we're putting in a huge effort to bridge that gap, but we obviously need to do more."

Gibbs said things continued to get better. There's a new relationship with the Māori Council, Māori providers are getting better equipped and resourced, and it's easier to transport the vaccine.

She said she hoped that will translate to a much better rollout for boosters and child vaccines next year.

"I think we do have, of course, a huge opportunity for our tamariki. We're hopefully starting out on that programme, assuming Medsafe approve, in a very very different place.

"We have, I think, an opportunity now that all of core elements of the programme and the vaccine itself are in place."

Friday is the last day of the week-long hearing, where final submissions will be made.

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