Health Minister David Clark has rejected claims he and other Government ministers have been "gagged", as he fronted today to announce a $160 million boost to Pharmac health spending.
An email from the Prime Minister's office, obtained by the Herald, directed ministers' press secretaries to issue only "brief written statements" in response to media queries after a huge release of official Covid-19 documents on Friday.
"Do not put Minister up for any interviews on this," the email said.
"There's no real need to defend because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the Govt is doing. Instead we can dismiss."
Clark rejected today an assertion he had been gagged - or that the memo was a sign of arrogance, as several political commentators have written. "Obviously I am here."
He said he had not personally received the memo, but saw it after it became a story. He did not believe the Government was arrogant.
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"I am here, happy to answer questions that journalists might have. This is the advice we have received. We have looked at that advice and then made decisions."
Asked about the advice to not defend but "dismiss" media questions, Clark said that was just advice from officials.
"Why they give particular advice at particular times, is for them to answer questions on."
He said the Government has been "very transparent" about how it had made its decisions.
He also disagreed with comments the Government was arrogant for saying in the email that "the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the Government is doing" and, therefore, ministers did not need to comment.
Meanwhile, after earlier controversies about his movements during the initial lockdown, Clark confirmed he would be standing for re-election this year. He said his community Labour board had asked him to stand again in the Dunedin North seat.
His comments came after announcing that the Government will bolster Pharmac's budget by an extra $160m.
This would help ensure that it, and the country's district health boards, have access to more medicines and vaccines.
Although there have been few specifics on where the extra money will be spent, Clark said today if a Covid-19 vaccine became available, the Government would ensure Pharmac had the money to get hold of it. A vaccine was still likely to be 12 months away.
The new funding is split across the next four years, with $10m being paid out next financial year, and the remaining $150m over the other three.
Today's pre-Budget announcement comes just four days before Thursday's "recovery Budget". It's one of the few new funding announcements that have been signalled before Budget Day.
Clark said these were not "normal times" and Thursday's Budget would have a "significant" focus on recovery and rebuilding.
But Clark said securing medicine supply was also "critical" for ensuring the wellbeing of New Zealanders. He said this was more vital now than ever.
"In times of global volatility, certainty of funding is even more vital."
He said the funding would help provide some certainty to people already dependent on medicines.
Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt told reporters Pharmac did not yet know the full fiscal impact of Covid-19.
Most New Zealand's medicines were imported and that supply chain had been "severely hit" by Covid-19.
This meant the price of medicines had been increasing and the cost of getting medicine to New Zealand had also increased dramatically as freight supply lines had shrunk.
She said this was likely to continue for "some time".
But the new funding would help make sure much-needed medicine continued to arrive in New Zealand, at a time of such uncertainty.
However, because of the global environment, Pharmac would be limited in its ability to invest in buying new drugs. Clark was at pains to point out today's funding was to ensure continuity of the supply of drugs already in circulation in New Zealand.
"The priority right now, is making sure New Zealanders can get the medicines they need during this unprecedented time."
Pharmac is the New Zealand Government agency that decides which medicines and medical devices are funded in New Zealand.
It gets its funding from the Government, but ministers are not allowed to directly tell the agency what to buy.
Clark said it was vital the Government prioritised additional investment in critical services like Pharmac, as it grappled with the health and economic impacts of Covid-19.
Since last year's Budget, Pharmac has approved 13 new medicines to be publicly funded, including six new cancer treatments.
Today's announcement is on top of a $60m boost to Pharmac last September, and a recent $35m one-off top-up in funding to help respond to Covid-19.
The new funding means Pharmac's medicine budget is $1.045 billion.
"This Government is committed to improving the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders. Protecting our medicines supply by continuing to invest in Pharmac does just that," Clark said.
On Friday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson revealed Thursday's Budget would be one of many in a series of announcements the Government will be making, as it looks to mitigate the economic damage of Covid-19.