Revelations that a National MP and a former party president combined to leak confidential Covid patients' details have been branded "dirty politics" by the Government.
National MP Hamish Walker has been stripped of his Opposition portfolios after admitting he passed confidential private details of Covid-19 patients to the media after he received them from former party president Michelle Boag.
He has apologised in a statement today, and didn't make a reference about whether he intended to remain as the Clutha-Southland candidate in September's general election.
A privacy breach of 18 active Covid cases was revealed by the Weekend Herald, which the Government has described as serious and possibly criminal.
National leader Todd Muller said tonight that Walker had made an "error of judgment".
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins said tonight the saga "has a ring of dirty politics to it".
Despite Walker and Boag's confessions an inquiry ordered by the Government into the leak, to be headed by top lawyer Michael Heron QC, would continue.
Muller has stripped Walker of his shadow portfolios pending the outcome of that inquiry.
Walker said that he had passed the details to the media after receiving them from former National Party president Michelle Boag.
Boag said it was a "massive error of judgment on my part" and apologised for doing so.
"The information was made available to me in my position as then acting CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (ARHT), although it was sent to my private email address.
"This was a massive error of judgment on my part and I apologise to my colleagues at ARHT whom I have let down badly.
"I very much regret my actions and did not anticipate that Hamish would choose to send it on to some media outlets but I am grateful that the media involved have chosen not to publish the 18 names that were contained within it."
Boag said she has resigned her position as acting chief executive of ARHT because of her conduct.
"My actions were mine alone and should not reflect at all on the professionalism, integrity and outstanding reputation of the Rescue Helicopter staff.
"They are an amazing bunch of dedicated community servants and I know they will be very disappointed in me."
Minister: Investigation into leak to continue
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says investigations will continue, despite Walker's admission.
Asked if Walker should stand down, Hipkins said that was a matter for National.
He said there were still questions that needed to be asked, such as who had the information.
It was "disappointing" that there were politicians involved in the leak.
Hipkins said he would have expected people to do the right thing when they get information like this.
He said he first found out about Walker leaking the information by reading the news.
He questioned Walker's judgment on this matter.
The Heron investigation will be looking into why Boag had the information.
Hipkins said it was important that the State Services Commission investigation finished before he made further comments, as he did not want to pre-empt the investigation.
Hipkins thanked the media for not reporting the names and details of the people involved in the leaked information.
His first reaction to the news was that he was pleased, as it would speed up the investigation.
He called on anyone who has more information to give the information to the SSC.
He was pleased that further information had come to light, but disappointed that a politician would use this information in this way.
He said it was very important that New Zealanders had confidence in the Government.
There have been some legitimate concerns that have been raised here - that's why it was important that the investigation continued.
Hipkins said he had not talked to Mike Heron, QC, since the information came to light.
He questioned Walker's integrity and judgment. He said people should act with care when they receive information such as this.
"There have got to be some lines in the sand," he said when asked about the politicking of the situation.
The investigation will look into who else had the information and how it was handled.
It will also identify any improvements that can be made.
Asked if dirty politics was back, he paused before saying: "It has a ring of dirty politics to it", and adding it would be disappointing to see that in the election.
"Indefensible behaviour": Privacy Commissioner
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards told Newstalk ZB Walker's actions were "very disappointing".
"It really is indefensible behaviour to receive that level of sensitive information and distribute it media outlets," he said. "There is no legitimate purpose for holding those individual's sensitive health information in that way."
Edwards believed the deliberate leak of the information was illegal and in breach of the Privacy Act, he said.
"There is a Queen's Counsel appointed to investigate the whole circumstances of the matter and he will be able to consider some of those questions more, whether there are charges that can be pursued and I look forward to his report."
But it was too early to comment on the specific legal advice that Walker had received.
New Zealanders should expect better from their politicians, Edwards said, and it was deeply disappointing "for anyone to use that kind of sensitive personal information as a kind of political stunt and leverage".
"It's a very serious matter. It could be very distressing; it could be harmful for those individuals.
"If he had concerns about the way in which that information was being managed he could've taken them up with me or any number of other people."
Walker admits handing confidential details to media
Walker "sincerely apologised" for how he handled the information, and was sorry for the impact on the affected individuals, who are all infected with Covid-19.
He said he released the information to media to justify his previous comments about Kiwis flying in from India, Pakistan and Korea, which the Government had described as racist.
"I made serious allegations against the Government's Covid-19 response and passed on this information to prove those allegations," he said in a statement today.
"I did this to expose the Government's shortcomings so they would be rectified. It was never intended that the personal details would be made public, and they have not been, either by me or the persons I forwarded them to."
Walker said he had received legal advice that he had not committed any criminal offence.
"The information that I received was not password-protected by the Government. It was not stored on a secure system where authorised people needed to log on. There was no redaction to protect patient details, and no confidentiality statement on the document.
"By exposing a significant privacy issue I hope the Government will improve its protocols and get its safeguards right."
Muller said he had asked Walker to co-operate fully with Heron's inquiry.
"I have expressed to Hamish my view that forwarding on this information was an error of judgment.
"While I wait for the result of the inquiry I have transferred his Forestry, Land Information and Associate Tourism portfolio responsibilities to Ian McKelvie."
The details of the then 18 active Covid cases were sent to the Herald as well as two other media outlets.
National previously damning of privacy breach
On Saturday, before they knew Walker's involvement, Muller and National's health spokesman, Michael Woodhouse, were damning of the privacy breach.
"This is unconscionable and unacceptable that those suffering from the incredibly dangerous virus now have to suffer further with their private details being leaked," Woodhouse said.
Muller told RNZ the breach was "quite staggering" and "unacceptable".
"Is it a deliberate leak or is it accidental? It doesn't really matter at a level ... it's loose, it's shabby and it's a reminder these guys can't manage important things well."
'Horrendous' - public health experts wade in
Those who played a prominent role in the health response to Covid-19 were quick to condemn the privacy breach on Twitter.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles said the breach was "heartbreaking".
"It's horrendous that personal patient information was able to be leaked like this. But Michelle Boag's conduct is utterly despicable," she said.
"It's heartbreaking trusted powerful people are working so hard to undermine what New Zealand has achieved. They are putting us in great danger."
Auckland University Professor Shaun Hendy, who has provided Covid modelling to the Government throughout the crisis, said: "Those of us who have worked on the #COVID19 response have gone to great pains to protect New Zealander's privacy. Makes me sick."
Labour candidate Ayesha Verrall said: "Totally unethical. This is patient information. Idea that it needed to be sent to media to make a point about privacy beggars belief."
Breach not a criminal offence under the Privacy Act: lawyer
Kelly McFadzien, a partner at Chapmann Tripp whose specialities include data protection and intellectual property, said Walker hadn't committed a crime under the Privacy Act.
"At first glance, it appears it would be an interference of someone's privacy for that information to have been disclosed by him, but a breach of the Privacy Act isn't a criminal offence under the Act," she said.
"It is personal information that he has received and under the Privacy Act, anyone that holds private information is not supposed to disclose that information without the knowledge of those involved, or under one of the exemptions from the Act."
Walker would not face criminal charges under the Act, but it would impossible to say if he may face any other criminal charges without knowing more about the case, McFadzien said.
Were one of the Covid patients whose details were leaked to complain about the privacy breach, or the Privacy Commissioner to complain, the matter could be taken to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, she said.
"An apology is often the mediated outcome, but if someone has suffered financial consequences then the agency may agree for them to be compensated.
"But if the information remains unpublished then the issue appears to be more about, how did it get out?"
Under the new Privacy Act, which comes into effect from December 1, 2020, the agency involved in a notifiable privacy breach must notify the people affected and the Privacy Commissioner.
However the new act could not be applied retroactively, McFadzien said
Previous accusation of 'racism'
Walker had been accused of being racist when he issued a press release singling out Kiwis returning from India, Pakistan and Korea and being placed in managed isolation or quarantine.
The Government had said it was investigating whether hotels in Queenstown and Dunedin were feasible as managed isolation and quarantine facilities.
In response, Walker said it was "absolutely disgraceful" communities hadn't been consulted.
"These people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea."