The Ministry of Health didn't want local councils to know if there were coronavirus cases in their areas because it was worried about what they would do with the information.

Correspondence provided to the Herald under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveals an email from the ministry to the district health board-owned public health units (PHUs) on April 2 advising them against publicising each territorial authority's (TA's) Covid-19 case numbers.

The ministry recommended DHBs did not release the breakdowns because "PHUs may not be able to control what TAs do with this information", the update from the National Health Co-ordination Centre PHU liaison team said.

But the secrecy around where the cases were frustrated Waikato leaders, who told the Herald at the time that knowing if there were cases in their districts would help them to convince the community why they needed to stay in lockdown.


The Waikato DHB responded to that criticism by saying it was following ministry guidelines in a bid to protect people's privacy.

But a statement from the ministry at the time that DHBs could release the breakdown by area after the 1pm press conferences contradicted the advice being given to the DHBs directly.

It also contradicted the latest information provided by them to the Herald this week, which said it didn't want the breakdown to be released by area if the number of Covid patients was less than 10.

However, a few days after Waikato leaders vented their frustration about Waikato DHB not giving them a district breakdown of cases, the ministry did a u-turn and told DHBs they could release the information by area, according to the OIA documents.

Hauraki mayor Toby Adams said the ministry's initial refusal to release the information felt as if the ministry didn't trust councils. He believed councils should have been given the information to share with their constituents.

"I couldn't see why they weren't getting the information. Some were getting it - obviously the hot spot areas were getting it. I didn't see the big secret behind it.

"We should all be working together as a country and yes, we are only local government but we are the connection between government and the community."

Otorohanga mayor Max Baxter, who had also fought for the information to be released at a local council level, said it was good when it was finally released because he believed people had a right to know. The release of information at a territorial authority level had also made it consistent across the country.


Hugh Vercoe, chair of the Waikato Civil Defence and Emergency Management joint committee, said the councils had not been asking for anything that would breach privacy such as names or addresses.

"Once they started to release it, it created more transparency as to what was going on in the local area and the degree of potential threat that there was in each individual area."

The ministry did not respond to questions about why it had initially told the Herald DHBs were free to release the information when this contradicted the guidelines for DHBs.

However a spokesperson said providing a breakdown of cases by local authorities at an early stage when the numbers were low risked identification of individuals and this had not changed.

"The Ministry of Health's Covid-19 response team has continually maintained the approach that this breakdown should not be publically available as it risked identifying cases. Legal advice we received from within the ministry suggested we increase the minimum number of case reporting by [territorial local authorities] to 10."