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How the Hamish Walker Covid-19 patient detail leak played out

Jul 08, 2020

Power Play - "I will not be making any further comment" is a well-worn line from the political disaster playbook but National leader Todd Muller is dreaming if he thinks it will wash after his MP leaked the private details of Covid-19 patients to the media.

Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker has been stripped of his portfolios after he informed his leader he was responsible for a leak that is now subject to an independent State Services inquiry.

But it's difficult to see how he'll survive this political storm when he kept his role in the leak quiet for four days and questions remain as to when exactly he told Muller and how long the leadership sat on the information.

RNZ was one of three media organisations that received personal details, including names, ages, addresses and quarantine locations, of the 18 Covid-19 active cases in the country as of last week.

RNZ made a commitment to Walker before receiving the information, not to name him as the source.

At the time RNZ received the information, Walker was being interviewed about a media statement he had sent out that had been labelled "racist" after it said up to 11,000 people arriving from overseas could be destined for quarantine in the south without any consultation with the community.

"It's absolutely disgraceful that the community hasn't been consulted on this,'' Walker had written.

Hamish Walker. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"These people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea," he said.

In an attempt to defend his comments, Walker told RNZ he would send information showing the country of origin of the Covid-19 cases.

He said RNZ could put the information to the minister-in-charge of quarantine and isolation, Megan Woods, on the agreement he remained anonymous.

RNZ did not anticipate being sent such a serious privacy breach.

In Walker's media statement yesterday he used a different explanation for leaking the details.

"I did this to expose the government's shortcomings so they would be rectified.

"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.

"I made serious allegations against the government's Covid-19 response and passed on this information to prove those allegations,'' he said.

The leak goes public

On Saturday RNZ reported it had received the leaked information but didn't disclose any of the private details or its source.

The National Party immediately responded - Muller declared it unacceptable and "shabby'' and said he'd first heard about it through media reports.

He said the breach was "quite staggering, it talks to a government that's slipping off the side of a cliff, in terms of managing this issue, the border, the information pertaining to it.

"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."

The party's spokesperson for health, Michael Woodhouse, said this was "yet another serious failing" that showed the government was not capable of managing Covid-19.

For four days Walker kept quiet about his involvement, even after Queen's Counsel Michael Heron was appointed to lead the inquiry on Monday.

It wasn't only Walker involved though.

Enter Michelle Boag

Shortly after Walker's statement coming clean yesterday, former National Party president Michelle Boag put out her own media release saying she had passed on the information.

Michelle Boag. Photo: Boag Allan

Boag has resigned from her role as acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust as a result of leak, though she said she received the details via her personal email address.

She said she didn't anticipate Walker would pass the details onto the media.

Both Boag and Walker are now likely to face the scrutiny of Heron, but questions remain over when they realised the inquiry underway was actually on the hunt for them.

And how long was it before they put their hand up to their respective bosses?

RNZ contacted Muller's chief press secretary on Monday afternoon asking to speak to the party leader or another MP about the announcement of an inquiry.

The reply via text was, "it's recess so I'm having trouble getting someone. Will listen to the post-Cab presser and get back to you".

It was followed up by another text saying, "we won't be commenting on this at the moment".

This was a complete u-turn from a party happy to comment on the leak on multiple occasions up until this point.

But that was also more than 24 hours before Walker went public with his involvement.

Just who knew what - and when - remains unclear.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins probably summed it up best when he arrived at his media conference last night and started with, "ummmm, where to begin?"

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