ACT Health has defended its approach to keeping information relating to underlying health conditions and vaccination status of COVID-19 hospitalisations and fatalities quiet, despite accusations it has fostered a “culture of secrecy”.
Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith faced a barrage of criticism today (23 March) from the Opposition which claimed Canberrans had been knowingly kept in the dark about important health information at the height of the Territory’s Omicron outbreak in January.
Opposition spokesperson for health Leanne Castley also alleged the minister had lost control of the department, a claim the minister strenuously refutes.
It comes after a chain of emails released under Freedom of Information revealed some health officials were concerned about how the public would interpret data about comorbidities and vaccination status of people who died with COVID-19.
In one example, emails show that health authorities were not keen to reveal that only one person who had died had received a booster dose – although someone from the department’s communications team suggested it should be released to encourage booster uptake.
But a health official said in an email that they did “not believe you can make any inferences about lack of boosters and subsequent death. Comorbidities are much more likely to have an effect”.
Another element of the email communication between ACT Health officials and Ms Stephen-Smith’s office – which is now publicly available – centred around the provision of information about individuals who died with COVID-19 in 2022 while undergoing palliative care at the time of death.
Initially, advisors to Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith had wanted to include a line in an official response about that but some health officials were concerned this information couldn’t be “backed up with data” as it was only anecdotal and, therefore, no follow-up information could be provided.
In another email, Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman also expressed concerns about releasing this data.
“We cannot back up with evidence any comment we make about palliative care in our deaths as [we] don’t routinely collect that data, risk of being seen callous or similar to commenting on it particularly if we cannot back it up,” her email read.
It continued: “if framed as not unexpected in this group with age and underlying comorbidities reflect susceptibility rather than it’s not unexpected because they are dying anyway.”
A spokesperson for the department said this information is also not routinely collected and can be “variable and complex to quantify for each individual” as it differs from end-of-life care.
The information about the vaccination status of people who died with COVID-19 in 2022 was provided to media outlets earlier this year on request – but, unlike in other states, it has never been routinely publicly released in the Territory.
For example, ACT Health’s ‘detailed’ weekly epidemiological report amounts to one page with dot points of information about the outbreak. In NSW, the age, location and vaccination status of every person who dies with the virus is reported daily, including on social media.
An ACT Health bureaucrat justified the decision in an email, explaining that “underlying medical conditions … are an important part of the picture”, but “these numbers are very small so no trends can be identified”.
Health also identified a need to preserve “patient confidentiality”.
Both reasons were rubbished by the Opposition.
Opposition spokesperson for health Leanne Castley said Canberrans have a right to know what is going on with health information throughout the pandemic.
“They shouldn’t be kept in the dark. There’s a culture of secrecy and Canberrans need to know the truth,” she said.
Ms Castley suggested there are ways this data could be presented while still preserving the confidentiality of those involved.
But Ms Stephen-Smith defended ACT Health officials in Question Time today saying all health officials took their roles, and their obligation to the Health Records (Privacy and Access) Act 1997, extremely seriously.
Ms Stephen-Smith said officials were only concerned about privacy and about providing accurate information – not about keeping secrets from the public.
She did, however, say several “robust conversations” had taken place between herself and the department around providing information to the media.
In a statement provided to Region Media today, a spokesperson for ACT Health said individuals could be identified more easily in the ACT because of its size.
“The release of health information without the consent of an individual or their family is much more difficult in this environment,” the spokesperson said.
“ACT Health is concerned that while the release of information may not lead to identification of the individual per se, it could result in a scenario where people in the community can readily identify the individual and receive information about that person’s health or vaccination status that the individual or their family has not consented to share.”