Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Why the calls to name the two Northland women can’t be answered right now

Two Covid cases refusing to divulge where they travelled in Northland does not warrant the “compelling public health reasons” needed to waive their privacy rights, the Ministry of Health says.

The question was put to the ministry after frustrated readers contacted the Advocate to state how unfair it seemed for the two women to stay anonymous while a second pair were identified.

The pair they referred to were the Auckland sex workers arrested for allegedly breaching the alert level 3 boundary by travelling to Blenheim without correct documentation on October 9.

A spokesman for the ministry said they did not release the names of the women apprehended in Blenheim.

“Questions about the publication of the names of the women who travelled to Blenheim should be directed to the courts,” he said.

Instead, their identities were able to be confirmed via official court documents when the women were charged by police.

When it comes to revealing the female travellers responsible for Northland’s snap lockdown there must be a strong case for the greater good of the population’s health.

“For privacy reasons, the Ministry of Health does not share personal information about people who have tested positive for Covid-19 unless there are compelling public health reasons to do so,” the spokesman said.

Public health teams and police have resorted to CCTV footage, bank card transactions, and cellphone records in a bid to trace the pair’s movements as the women opt for near-silence about their trip.

Yet only eight locations of interest have been publicly identified in the Whangārei District and Kerikeri between October 2-5.

A Kerikeri hairdresser was thought to have been a ninth exposure site as stated by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. However, the MoH said further investigations revealed this was incorrect.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins declared Paihia and Kawakawa to be locations of interest early on but no specific details have come to light.

Northlanders hungry for information were dealt a hefty blow on Thursday when Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said they “probably” had as much information “as they are going to get” from the two women.

Despite all of these factors the MoH has maintained publicly naming the women “in this instance” would not further their “public health goals”.

“Public health officials have assessed that publicising information about locations of interest linked to these two women’s movements and a focus on testing and vaccinations is the best way to minimise the risk of community transmission in Northland.”

University of Auckland law expert Bill Hodge said the media ran the risk of contempt of court if they chose to publicly name the women.

He said the test for contempt of court – a law against interference with the administration of justice – was whether legal proceedings were “imminent” regardless of the fact they weren’t technically before a court yet.

“And I think proceedings are imminent for those two,” he said.

Police have indicated that it could be several weeks before any decision on charges were made.

“My own view is that the names could be published but the test is whether the associated information in the article would impair a fair trial,” Hodge said.

To avoid prejudicing any trial, media outlets would have to be “careful” with the other material published around the women’s namessuch as ensuring the information was clearly “alleged”.

Hodge said the situation was similar to the case of the infamous “Wanaka couple” where there were “lots of facts to investigate and prepare for trial”.

“I think the same is true for the Northland pair, especially because they don’t seem to be co-operative.”

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