The Unite Against Covid-19 Facebook page should have never made comments about whether two of the cases in Auckland’s latest cluster should have been isolating, says the deputy chief executive of the Government’s pandemic group.
Appearing before Parliament’s Governance and Administration Committee, the Covid-19 Group’s Cheryl Barnes said the Unite Against Covid-19 social media pages gave “public health information”, rather than advice. This had become clearer as time had gone on, and the team was "learning continuously as we go”, she said.
Barnes said Unite Against Covid-19’s role was to “relay messages and key communications messages” from the Ministry of Health and public health experts.
But, the page had, on at least two occasions in the past year, contradicted comments made either by the Prime Minister, the Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, or the Ministry of Health.
The latest incident involved Case J, a Kmart worker, and Case L, a KFC worker.
Ministry of Health officials and Hipkins said the whole household of the cases should have been isolating as they awaited their Covid-19 test results. But, Case L went to work on February 22 and 23.
Case L, however, told Newshub she wasn’t told to self-isolate.
According to the Unite Against Covid-19 Facebook page, Case L and J weren’t meant to be isolating at the time, either.
“Case J (Kmart worker) and Case L (KFC worker) were not required to isolate at the time,” the group said on Facebook in response to a person’s question.
The post continued: “Initially, casual plus contacts such as Case I (today’s Case L sibling) were advised to get a test and self isolate, but their household members were not required to do so. The family complied with the advice they were given at the time.”
Barnes told the select committee today Unite Against Covid-19 should have never made comments on individual cases.
She said social media comments were handled by a communications team made up of five to six people.
“In light of that post, I have reviewed and reset those protocols and principles to make it really clear that we don’t comment on individual cases,” Barnes said.
When asked today whether she would apologise to the cases, she responded: “That information — we shouldn’t have posted [it] there.”
Barnes this afternoon was also questioned about the Facebook page’s August post, which has since been taken down, urging people in West and South Auckland to get tested when possible.
The post caused confusion and concern in those communities, prompting Jacinda Ardern to later emphasise blanket testing wasn’t necessary across the two Auckland regions.
"I think ultimately what’s happened here is that there has been an attempt to keep a message simple and it’s just been done badly. … That is not the ask coming from health officials.” she said.
Barnes said today her team had reviewed the incident and had learnt from it.