Mayor and CEO refuse to front after public health crisis denial

by Kim Bowden - Dec 13, 2023


The Queenstown Lakes District mayor, the council chief executive and the public health authority are all declining to comment on their organisations' dismissals of an emerging public health crisis in Queenstown, despite their actions potentially putting more people at risk.

On September 14 Crux sent written questions to Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora and the Queenstown Lakes District Council after social media and wider community reports a severe diarrhoea bug had been doing the rounds of central Queenstown suburbs.

Facebook community page comments suggested hundreds had been affected, over a number of weeks, with some residents linking the illness to the town's drinking water.

The replies Crux received that day from both the health authority and the district council said, in short, 'nothing to see here'.

Yet it has been revealed this week that by September 14, three cases of illness from cryptosporidium had already been confirmed in Queenstown.

Information revealed to Newshub under official information legislation shows public health officials had been investigating cases in the days prior to the enquiry from Crux.

However, despite requesting "all details" on a "gastro bug" affecting central Queenstown and neighbouring Fernhill, the health authority's southern communication's team provided the following written statement to Crux, attributed to Dr Michael Butchard, the medical officer of health for National Public Health Service Southern:

"Acute gastroenteritis notifications to the National Public Health Service from Fernhill and Queenstown are not elevated and show nothing of concern."

This information, now shown to be misleading, was disseminated to thousands who read our subsequent 'nothing to see here' story.

Four days later, a full-blown public health crisis was declared and a boil water notice put in place stretching from Frankton to Sunshine Bay and everywhere in-between.

This week Crux has asked the health authority why we were provided incorrect or incomplete public health information, as well as for their professional take on whether this reporting, or mis-reporting as the case may be, could have put more people at risk.

Our questions remain unanswered.

And, to the council.

Also on September 14, Crux put to the council assertions circulating in the community the widespread bouts of diarrhoea, stomach cramps and nausea being reported may be sourced to Queenstown's drinking water.

This was not a 'gotcha' question - it was a Crux journalist doing their job, being curious, staying open minded and asking questions of experts after hearing hundreds of 'reckons' from members of the community.

Within 20 minutes of emailing the council, this is the reply Crux received from a member of the communications team:

"I’ll have a full response for you soon but suffice to say there isn’t and hasn’t been any contamination."

It is unknown if during those 20 minutes the communications staffer actually put the question to a more relevant and qualified staff member or not.

Approximately three hours later Crux received this follow up from the communications staff member, attributed to infrastructure boss Simon Mason:

"We can confirm that there is not, and hasn’t been, any contamination of the council-managed water supply in the Fernhill area."

We all know this comment hasn't aged well. Six days later, national water regulator Taumata Arowai issued the council with a compliance order for two of its water treatment facilities and a boil water notice that was to last more than 11 weeks was put in place.

In October, an investigation by the health authority concluded contamination of the council's drinking water supply was the likely source of the cryptosporidium outbreak.

It appears those 'reckons' from interested community members, and put to the council by Crux, were on the money.

This week Mayor Glyn Lewers has declined to comment on whether he stands by his council's communications to Crux on September 14, saying, "As this is an operational matter, I have copied in our comms team who can coordinate a response from staff".

Council chief executive Mike Theelen has also declined to comment, saying the very staff in question were "best placed to respond".

QLDC governance and stakeholder manager Naell Crosby-Rae has responded to Crux this week saying, "All responses to enquiries about illness in Fernhill were responded to in good faith and in a timely and courteous manner....with the facts known at the time."

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