Coalition's WHO policy leaves public health expert 'baffled'

University of Otago epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker has won the Royal Society of New Zealand’s...
Prof Michael Baker. Photo: Supplied
Public health academic Michael Baker is baffled by the new government's "incoherent" approach to World Health Organisation (WHO) regulations.

New Zealand's new government has urgently lodged a reservation - a letter saying the country would not sign up yet - for amendments to WHO health regulations.

It was part of National's agreement with New Zealand First, which requires the government to ensure a 'National Interest Test' before New Zealand accepts any United Nations agreements, or those from its agencies, "that limit national decision-making, and reconfirm that New Zealand's domestic law holds primacy over any international agreements".

"As part of the above, by 1 December 2023 reserve against proposed amendments to WHO health regulations to allow the incoming government to consider these against a 'National Interest Test'," the agreement stated.

That test would assess whether it is in New Zealand's interests to sign up to proposed amendments, but Prof Baker said the agreement seemed to be calling for what was already happening.

"Before New Zealand does sign any substantial international agreements including those from the World Health Organisation ... it will carry out a national interest analysis, and then there's a parliamentary treaty examination," he said.

"All of those happen routinely, the only time when that wouldn't happen is if there's very minor insubstantial change to international law where government agencies and Cabinet decide that it's not necessary."

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said including the provision in the plan for the government's first 100 days was because of the short timeframe allowed.

"We just, as a new government, want to be able to take a pause and make sure that it meets a national interest test," he said. They had nothing against the regulations, "we're just saying there's a decision that needs to be made".

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ
Just one amendment to the WHO regulations would need a reservation to be lodged by the end of November, but it merely shortens the time countries can lodge a reservation from two years to one - speeding up the WHO's ability to come to agreement on health regulations.

"That strikes me as rather odd," Baker said. "It's an administrative shift, and that was reviewed by [Cabinet] and I've got the Cabinet minutes here - which has been released publicly, anyone can download it - that explains why this was an inconsequential change in didn't require lengthy review process.

"I just can't see that you would want to go through that whole process for a trivial amendment like this."

The amendment had been part of a larger suite of changes proposed by the United States in May last year, which was the subject of criticism for overreach in an international law blog, but as the WHO's decisions show only the change to timeframes was adopted.

WHO member states are also set to vote next year on a much broader revision of the regulations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with New Zealand's Dr Ashley Bloomfield co-chairing a working group of 15 representative countries to agree on changes over the past 18 months.

Once agreed, these would be presented to the next World Health Assembly in May 2024. Proposals for changes are publicly available, but have not yet been finalised.

As Baker says, however, all of that would be subject to a national interest test anyway - as the last major amendments were.

"Frankly, I find the points being made about these international health agreements incoherent, and I just do not know what they're doing there ... I am baffled by seeing this clause in the agreement because in many ways, it's just stating what New Zealand already does."

He said he expected the changes from that broader review would lead to improvements in global security for future health emergencies.

"I think people should look at what changes are proposed and then hopefully there'll be opportunities for all of us to voice our opinions publicly.

"Because really, the world needs more coordination rather than less, because we are all in it together. And countries cannot insulate themselves from pandemic threats."

There's also currently a process for an international treaty for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response which countries hope to have finalised for the May 2024 meeting, as well as an international panel reviewing the pandemic response led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Theories about the UN and the WHO have been circulating online as one of the major recurring touchpoints of conspiracist movements, long before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

NZ First leader Winston Peters at his swearing-in. Photo: RNZ
NZ First leader Winston Peters at his swearing-in. Photo: RNZ
NZ First leader Winston Peters, now the deputy prime minister, posted on social media in May saying New Zealanders would be "highly concerned that the World Health Organisation proposes to effectively take control of independent decision making away from sovereign countries and place control with the Director General".

His second-in-command Shane Jones penned an opinion in the NZ Herald in June railing against globalism and the risks of handing more power to the WHO.

Asked whether the reservation laid out in New Zealand First's coalition agreement was pandering to conspiracy theorists, Baker said: "it would be easy to read it like that, I guess you just have to ask the people who wrote it".

New Zealand First did not respond to requests for comment.

'Interim position' - Shane Reti

National's Shane Reti, however, did - confirming in a statement the Health and Foreign Affairs and Trade ministries had formally notified the WHO about Cabinet's reservation about the health regulation amendments "in their entirety" on Wednesday.

"They did this until the government can conduct a national interest test," Reti said. "The only way to give effect to this is to formally reject the amendments. Rejections may be withdrawn by New Zealand at any time, after which the amendments would come into force.

Health Minister Shane Reti being sworn in on Monday. Photo: RNZ
Health Minister Shane Reti being sworn in on Monday. Photo: RNZ
"Reserving against provides for a pause on New Zealand's response to amendments suggested by the WHO, while they're considered against a national interest test. This is an interim position to give the new government the opportunity to receive advice and fully consider the amendments."

Labour's Health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall said she was deeply concerned "that I see that sort of rubbish about the WHO and international health regulations on the internet, and all of a sudden it's in a coalition document.

"Those health regulations are used to make sure that when there is a disease with pandemic potential, there is an early warning given out across the world.

"The government needs to be able to speak, and justify the decisions that it has taken on these quite fringe concerns."

Reti however said it was unjustified for Labour to "somehow suggest that the government's commitment to international health outcomes has been compromised".

"New Zealand remains committed to working with other Member States to ensure the WHO is best able to fulfil its mandate. We are not going to walk away from all the good work on international health carried out by the WHO over decades," he said.