Hamish Walker to step down over privacy breach

Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker has announced he will leave Parliament at this year's election after he leaked Covid-19 patients' names to media.

National Hamish Walker's political career is over, with the Clutha-Southland politician announcing he will not stand for re-election after his role in a Covid-19 privacy breach.

Walker's hand was essentially forced after his leader Todd Muller wrote to the party's board recommending it act against Walker for leaking sensitive medical information of patients who had tested positive for the virus.

In a brief statement, the MP said he would not be standing for re-election in the Southland electorate on September 19.

"I wish to thank the people of Clutha-Southland who I have loved meeting, assisting and representing over the past two and a half years," Walker said, adding that he "sincerely apologise[d] for my actions" and would not be commenting further.

Muller said he had accepted Walker's decision to withdraw his candidacy, made formal with a letter to the party's southern regional chair Rachel Bird.

"There was a clear breach of trust, which goes against the values National holds as a party," he said.

National's board would still meet on Wednesday to discuss the selection of a new candidate.

'Not the National Party I lead'

Earlier in the day, Muller told RNZ's Morning Report there had to be consequences for Walker's actions.

Former National Party president Michelle Boag, who provided the information to Walker, has stood down from her roles on the electorate and campaign committees of Muller's deputy leader and Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye.

Walker confessed on Tuesday evening to sharing the private information of Covid-19 patients with media after the Government launched a high-powered inquiry to determine the source of the data breach.

Muller told RNZ he was "hugely angry" with his MP and had contacted National's board on Tuesday night, expressing his concern and asking it to take action.

"This is not the National Party that I lead, this is not the culture I expect from my team, and bluntly there need to be consequences."

The National leader said Walker informed him of his actions early on Monday afternoon, and shortly before the Government announced its inquiry into the privacy breach.

Muller said he intended for that information to be released at the time, but was forced to "test...my legal position" on Tuesday after receiving legal letters from a QC acting for Walker.

He appeared to have little sympathy for Walker's argument that he had shared the information with media to rebut allegations of racism made over an earlier press release, expressing concerns about overseas arrivals from India, Korea and Pakistan heading to the south for quarantine or managed isolation.

"I think it is an appalling lack of judgment and if people want to put that label [dirty politics] on it, so be it."

"Well I think that from my perspective, if one was truly seeking to raise issues with respect to the poor process around protecting people’s information, there’s ways that you do that without sending all those personal details to the media."

Asked if the behaviour qualified as dirty politics, Muller said: "I think it is an appalling lack of judgment and if people want to put that label on it, so be it."

A spokeswoman for the National Party said Boag had stepped down from Kaye's electorate committee and campaign committee, although she had never been campaign chair as reported by some.

Walker, who passed on the details of 18 people who had returned positive Covid-19 tests, said he had received legal advice that he had not committed any criminal offence.

The data breach was reported by several media outlets over the weekend, prompting State Services Minister Chris Hipkins to establish an independent inquiry into the leak, to be led by Mike Heron QC.

Pre-empting that process, which was due to be concluded by July 24, Walker identified himself as having shared the information with media by email.

The MP had been given the data by Boag, who outed herself as his source in a separate media statement. 

"I did this to expose the Government's shortcomings so they would be rectified. It was never intended that the personal details would be made public, and they have not been, either by me or the persons I forwarded them to," Walker said.

The information he had received was not password-protected or stored on a secure system where authorised users had to log on, while there was no redaction to protect patient details or confidentiality statement.

"By exposing a significant privacy issue I hope the Government will improve its protocols and get its safeguards right," Walker said.

The Clutha-Southland MP, who took over from Todd Barclay after he retired following a secret recording scandal, apologised for how he had handled the information and said he would fully cooperate with Heron's inquiry.

Former National Party president Michelle Boag, who leaked private patient information to Hamish Walker, resigned from the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust over what she called "a massive error of judgment on my part". Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

In her own media statement, Boag said the information had been made available to her in her position as acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, although it had been sent to her private email address.

"This was a massive error of judgment on my part and I apologise to my colleagues at ARHT whom I have let down badly," Boag said.

Boag said she had not anticipated that Walker would share the information with some media outlets, but was grateful the journalists involved had chosen not to publish the patients' names.

She had resigned from her role with the trust as a result of the scandal, saying her actions were hers alone and should not reflect on the trust's work in the community.

Muller initially said he had temporarily stripped Walker of his forestry, land information and associate tourism portfolios, and had told the MP that forwarding the information was "an error of judgment".

However, on Tuesday evening Muller had said he would not comment further while Heron's inquiry was underway.

'A ring of dirty politics'

Speaking to media about the revelations, Hipkins said he did not want to prejudice the investigation, which would still be carried out by Heron.

"It's important that all of the questions that have been raised about this are answered thoroughly, including who had access to the information, and whether the information was handled appropriately at all times."

He was pleased that there was greater clarity about the origin of the breach, but disappointed that it involved a politician given the sensitivity of the data.

"If a member of Parliament can't accept that receiving people's health information is something that they should treat with a degree of confidence, then that says quite a lot about their own levels of personal integrity and judgment."

Hipkins said it was for Heron to investigate whether Boag should have had access to the information in the first place, but he noted the rescue helicopter trust was a "trusted partner" which would need access to confidential patient data because of the nature of its work.

"This is a very disappointing situation, it does have a ring of dirty politics to it, and I think that would be very sad for the forthcoming election campaign."

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