The saga of Matthew Hooton’s latest NZ Herald column shows the trouble caused by poor fact-checking in Government and media alike, Marc Daalder writes
On Thursday morning, the New Zealand Herald published a bombshell claim that Government data indicated the country was on the verge of running out of Covid-19 vaccines.
No one was more surprised to read this than those in the Government themselves, who knew we had just received 100,000 doses of vaccine this week and were still expecting regular shipments to continue over the coming weeks as they had in the prior three months.
At issue were two erroneous numbers released by the Prime Minister and by Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Monday, when they announced that New Zealand would receive a million more doses of the Pfizer vaccine in July, bringing the total number received to-date to “more than 1.9 million”.
That 1.9 million figure was the first (sort of) falsehood. New Zealand will in fact have well over 1.9 million vaccines by the end of July – it had already received 1.025 million by Wednesday, expects another million in July, and we tend to get between 49,000 and 78,000 a week in shipments that will continue through June. The figure was provided to the Beehive by the Ministry of Health, which had forgotten to account for doses arriving in June.
The second wrong number from the PM and Hipkins was a claim that we are vaccinating 20,000 people a day. The real number for the most recent week is closer to 15,000.
Combine this data with the most recent cumulative total for doses in arms from the Ministry of Health website – 775,000 – and you get the makings of a disaster. Herald columnist Matthew Hooton understandably figured that, if we’re receiving a million doses in July and that will bring our gross stocks to 1.9 million, then we must have only received 900,000 to-date. Subtract from that the 775,000 administered doses and you get 125,000 remaining. At a pace of 20,000 a day, we’d run out before the end of next week.
What Hooton didn’t know was that New Zealand will continue to receive weekly shipments of the vaccine, despite Hipkins saying exactly that during the Monday announcement.
In fact, in the earliest version of his article, Hooton wrote, “According to Hipkins and also Jacinda Ardern at her press conference on Tuesday, New Zealand has only received around 900,000 doses from Pfizer, with no more to come until July.”
That last clause, of course, was not true. When asked whether we would run out at the beginning of July (let alone mid-June), Hipkins had responded: “No, we shouldn’t do, based on the deliveries that we know we’re going to get a reasonable amount through June as we finish up the deliveries that are already scheduled.”
This information about weekly shipments was widely available – it appears, for example, in a recent Stuff article on the dangers of our low stocks and in a Newsroom article reporting Ardern’s mid-May warning that stocks could run out before July.
Even the most recent version of Hooton’s article continues this untrue claim. “There are supplies coming into New Zealand that [Ardern] and Hipkins didn’t mention on Tuesday,” he wrote.
Hooton never asked Ardern or Hipkins' offices about deliveries in June, but the Beehive did reiterate the 1.9 million and 20,000 figures when he reached out to double-check. Speaking to me on Friday, he insisted that he had done far more to check his figures than was expected of the average columnist.
"I spent far more time on this than any other column, in terms of checking facts with the relevant authorities - which is the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office," he said.
"I'm perfectly entitled to say the Prime Minister has made a public announcement, backed up by the [Covid-19] Minister that by the end of June, we will have imported 900,000 - or thereabouts - doses. I don't have to check that further. That's the official figure - that's the official figure from the Prime Minister."
Hooton says he was technically never wrong with his claim about running out of vaccines, because he himself never said the stocks were on the verge of running dry. Instead, he caveated it: "If the Government’s own figures can be believed, New Zealand will run out of Covid vaccines early next week." In a later version of the article, this now refers not to the Government's data but to "the Prime Minister's words".
The situation is a complex one. Hooton is arguably right - he should be able to rely on public statements from Ardern and Hipkins, without having to seek the source data from the Ministry of Health. While he should have known about the weekly deliveries, which make it impossible to run out in a matter of days, the onus is on the Government to get its facts straight.
MoH numbers unreliable
When I spoke with him on Friday, Hooton also criticised me for saying that the Ministry of Health spreadsheet disproved the 1.9 million and 20,000 figure.
"You, personally, have no reason to believe that spreadsheet is more accurate than what the Prime Minister says," he said.
On the one hand, I do stand by trusting the numbers in a spreadsheet over the numbers in a press release. But on the other, the ministry's own numbers have been wrong on many occasions.
Lost in the furore over the vaccine stocks was another numerical error Ardern and Hipkins made this week - sort of. On Monday, they repeatedly said New Zealand's rollout would peak at 50,000 doses a day. But that's contradicted by the ministry's own modelling which estimates that New Zealand will have to vaccinate 76,000 people a day, on average, for 49 days straight in September and October.
"Look, we’ve always said, and based on the modelling that I have seen and that we’ve been working to, it sits around that 50,000 a day marker," Hipkins said.
When I pushed him on that, citing the source of the 76,000 figure, he insisted 50,000 was the right number. Was he saying that the ministry's own modelling was wrong? On Thursday in Parliament, he did exactly that, telling National MP Chris Bishop, "The vaccine rollout model has continued to be refined as we've understood more about both what we can expect in terms of deliveries, but also how we can make sure that we are rolling out the vaccine in a sustainable way.
"Work has been undertaken, since the model was first mooted, with district health boards to try and smooth demand during that latter part of the year, so that we don't end up with big peaks and troughs. As a result, the average should be, for a sustained period of time, around 50,000 a day."
When will we get the updated numbers, which are the best benchmark against which the rollout can be held to account?
"An appropriate time," Hipkins said in the House.
Clearly, the numbers here are a mess. And Hooton isn't wrong to raise concerns about low stocks - the Government is now telling district health boards that have over-performed their targets to scale back, lest the country run out of vaccines later this month or early next month.
The fault, then, seems to lie with the Herald itself, which ran Hooton's claims that (per Government data) vaccines will run out next week without checking them sufficiently. Although head of premium business content Duncan Bridgeman told me the column was fact-checked, any of the Herald's science, health or politics reporters could have spotted the error ahead of time.
Between publication online on Thursday and ending up in newsprint on Friday, Hooton's column was also edited at least three times. Each of at least the first 12 sentences of the most recent version have been edited, some in minor ways, others rewritten entirely. The Herald never issued a correction.
"The online column and its headline were updated after information that had previously been sought from the Government was supplied," Bridgeman said.
"We stand by the column as views expressed by Matthew Hooton."
While Hooton's caveats may make it technically true that he wasn't wrong, the effect of the initial version of the column was still misleading. Readers could (indeed, did) come away with the impression that vaccine stocks were set to run out next week, which was never the case.
And Hooton didn't hold to the caveats throughout the article. Later on, he references 100,000 people who, if vaccines ran out next week, would not have received their second shots as being among the first to get vaccinated in July.
"The first lot would need to go to the 100,000 people who will not get their second dose on time this month," he wrote. No caveats there.
COVAX false claims
All numbers issues aside, there is one more factual issue with Hooton's column. When it was updated with more caveats and sources for Hooton's figures, it was also corrected to add the source for some 100,000 new doses received this week: The COVAX facility.
The column now falsely claims the scheme is "meant to help the world’s 92 poorest countries get vaccines" and that the 100,000 Pfizer doses were "diverted" from it. The term "diverted" is also used on the sole editor's note in the piece, which doesn't address the changes made to the claims that the country will run out of vaccines next week.
Contrary to Hooton's (and the Herald's) misconceptions, COVAX is just as much for rich countries that have paid into it like New Zealand as it is for poor countries that haven't. Half of the two billion doses it hopes to acquire this year are earmarked for paying countries like New Zealand. In fact, any country that pays into the scheme reserves the right to get enough doses to vaccinate up to half of its population, compared to just a fifth for the low- and middle-income countries that haven't paid in.
Bridgeman didn't answer my questions about the false claims regarding COVAX.
Although Hooton presented it as a scoop and a moral shame, the fact that New Zealand would use vaccines it paid for through COVAX isn't new. On Monday, Hipkins had said, "We’ll have a few extra doses coming through our COVAX allocation during that time, and then through July, as I said, we’ve now got the confirmation of a million through July."
The Auditor-General's report into the vaccine rollout, released publicly in May, stated: "The Government agreed to join COVAX in September 2020. In January 2021, the Government accepted purchase options for 100,620 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 1,668,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford (AstraZeneca) vaccine through COVAX."
And documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the Government considering purchasing vaccines, including Pfizer, through COVAX as early as November 13, 2020.
Since the January decision to purchase, New Zealand has gone all-in on Pfizer. The 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca we bought have therefore been donated to other countries.
If Hooton wants to take real aim at a moral failing of New Zealand's vaccine rollout, there are plenty to choose from. What about Māori receiving less than 10 percent of vaccine doses to-date, despite making up more than 16 percent of the national population? Or New Zealand's long, shameful refusal to back an intellectual property waiver on coronavirus vaccines - until the United States came out in support of the measure and Trade Minister Damien O'Connor pulled an about-face in 30 minutes?
The greatest failing, however, has not been in using COVAX doses but in using any bilateral doses whatsoever. COVAX was designed to be a global purchasing scheme, in which all countries would pool money and resources to obtain and equitably distribute the first wave of vaccines. As a reward for supporting the scheme, paying countries were offered a little more (enough to immunise up to 50 percent of their populations, not just 20 percent). But in theory, as vaccines became available, they would be evenly distributed to high-risk people and frontline workers around the world.
Then, after negotiating special privileges within COVAX, rich countries like New Zealand undermined it by making separate, bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies. These companies then funnelled vaccines to rich countries first, before reluctantly turning to COVAX in the second quarter of this year. That's part of the reason why the global rollout has been so uneven, why poor countries like India have suffered serious outbreaks but fully vaccinated less than 5 percent of their populations, why COVAX expects to be facing a shortfall of nearly 200 million vaccines by the end of this month.
So much for "diverted".