New Zealand still does not have a communications strategy specifically aimed at countering false information about the Covid-19 vaccine, four months into the coronavirus immunisation programme, the Herald can reveal.
The Ministry of Health says it is now developing a strategy and plans to have it ready before the rollout of the vaccine to the general public in July.
The national immunisation programme is vital to the country's recovery from the pandemic, but it could be undermined if a substantial number of people refuse to be vaccinated because they're concerned about its safety and efficacy.
Polling shows 14 per cent of Kiwis say they're unlikely to get the shots and a further 13 per cent are unsure.
The Herald discovered the lack of a strategy through an Official Information Act request which sought from the ministry "any communications plan which refers to vaccine hesitancy, or anti-vaccination campaigners, created since March 2020".
The Health Ministry's national director of the Covid-19 immunisation vaccination programme, Jo Gibbs, responded saying it couldn't provide one because "the information does not exist".
"The ministry is intending to develop a communications plan that specifically targets vaccine hesitancy in the future," Gibbs said.
Two weeks later, another official clarified that the department is now "developing a communications plan specifically addressing vaccine hesitancy ahead of the rollout of the vaccination programme to the wider population".
The first Covid-19 vaccine was administered in mid-February.
The risk posed by anti-vaccination disinformation and misinformation to the national health effort was raised in September last year, as part of a research project into the onslaught of information, sometimes false or conflicting, that came with the pandemic.
Researchers at Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems and Networks, warned that a Covid-19 vaccine would be "a major focus for ongoing disinformation and conspiracy narratives".
This research fed into the "all of government" Covid-19 response led by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the hub of government.
As the pandemic progressed, the Government was aware of the wave of falsehoods circulating about the coronavirus and the risks that they posed to the country's ability to contain it. And there was an awareness in parts of Government that vaccines specifically could become a focal point for false claims, rumours and conspiracy theories.
A wider project at the DPMC aimed at developing a broad strategy to counter disinformation and misinformation on a range of subjects not limited to Covid, such as the March 15 massacre, was widened to include work on countering false information about the coronavirus vaccines, the Herald understands.
However, when the Ministry of Health and the DPMC produced a joint strategy for managing false information about the pandemic, it did not include reference specifically to vaccine hesitancy.
In March, when the first phase of the vaccine rollout had begun, the departments produced an updated version of that strategy which showed a growing awareness in the Government of the potential for "attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about immunisation" to undermine the programme.
Documents seen by the Herald reveal that about that time Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other senior ministers began receiving joint briefings from the ministry and the DPMC warning "vaccine misinformation appears to be on the rise".
According to the documents, political leaders were told measures were being taken to respond to false information when it arose, including asking social media platforms to remove it and working with individual health boards to respond to specific instances of misinformation "in a way that doesn't provide 'oxygen' to any incorrect information".
Also in March, the Prime Minister and other leaders were told the ministry had started using filters on its social media accounts to remove damaging comments added to its own posts.
Words referring to the vaccine as "biological agent, experimental drug, DNA altering" were targeted.
At that time, ministers were told the DPMC would tackle vaccine disinformation and misinformation as part of the broader "all of government" strategy. They were told this strategy would be ready in April. But at the start of June, it was still awaiting sign-off.
In the meantime, the Health Ministry has pushed ahead with developing its own strategy specifically relating to vaccine disinformation and misinformation.
Last month, a report on the vaccine rollout by the Auditor-General, John Ryan, said: "Where there is an absence of information coming from official sources, the risks of misinformation filling the gap are intensified. This could directly affect confidence in the immunisation programme and uptake of the vaccine."