In what we’re sure they thought would be a two-for-one hit-job on Winston Peters and the freedom movement, Stuff fact-checked WP’s debate statement that 11,000 workers gained vaccine exemptions when mandates were enforced upon the rest of the population, only to find out, well—it’s fact.
Politicians vying for your vote made some startling arguments during The Press Leaders Debate this week, so Stuff fact-checked several of them. Olivia Wannan reports on who was right and who was wrong.
Winston Peters, New Zealand First
After being asked about anti-vaccination supporters, “11,500 people got the exemption from the health department”.
When vaccine mandates were in force, two exemptions were available. Medical exemptions might be granted to those with a recent infection (since the Ministry of Health recommends six months between catching Covid and getting a jab), plus those with life-threatening health issues or who’d experienced an adverse reaction to the first injection – though applications were tightly scrutinised. These exemptions last a maximum of six months.
Healthcare organisations could also apply for an exemption on behalf of their employees, lasting eight weeks at most. They’d need to prove that significant disruption to services would occur if workers did not remain in place, and they’d tried to make alternative arrangements.
While the 11,000-plus figure is astonishing, Peters’ claim is not without evidence.
NZ First provided an Official Information Act response from Te Whatu Ora Health NZ – the central organisation which replaced District Health Boards.
The letter said 103 applications for an exemption to avoid significant service disruption had been successful between November 2021 and September 2022. A figure of “approximately 11,005” came from adding up the health and disability workers covered by these 103 applications.
NZ First said the person that gave Peters the data transposed the third and fifth digits, so the veteran politician said 11,500 not 11,005.
Asked to clarify, Te Whatu Ora confirmed the 11,005 figure. Many, though not all, were employed by the former DHBs.
Some DHB applications covered hundreds of employees.
In total, the DHBs had 85 successful applications, the agency said.
With only 20 DHBs, some were granted recurring permission to let unvaccinated staff work between November 2021 and September 2022.
Because of that, employees could have been counted multiple times in the 11,005 statistic.
Te Whatu Ora Health NZ spokesperson Matt Hannant said the exemptions allowed health services to continue uninterrupted. Applicants “had to outline their plan to avoid Covid-19 transmission and confirm that no alternate service delivery option was possible”.
In addition, another 6410 people received a temporary medical exemption between November 2021 and September 2022, according to Te Whatu Ora – with 89% of these covering those with a recent Covid-19 infection.
The figures are significantly higher than previously-released data.
In March, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins answered National MP Chris Bishop’s questions, stating up to 2600 people had received a service disruption exemption and up to 304 a medical exemption between November 2021 and February 2022. (The data provided monthly figures, so a person with an exemption granted in both November and February could have been counted multiple times.)