'Entirely offensive': Sir Ian Taylor hangs up on Minister

Sir Ian Taylor has written more than a dozen columns for the New Zealand Herald prior to, during,...
Sir Ian Taylor has written more than a dozen columns for the New Zealand Herald prior to, during, and since his self-isolation trial in November. Photo: NZ Herald
Dunedin businessman Sir Ian Taylor says he hung up at the beginning of a conference call with Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall after he claims she asked him to stop writing "bad faith" columns.

Taylor has written more than a dozen Covid-19 related columns for The New Zealand Herald , which also appear in The Otago Daily Times in the newspaper and online, prior to, during and since his self-isolation trial in November last year.

In them, he relayed the feedback and ideas he provided to the Government over the merits and flaws of his own self-isolation trial.

Taylor also claims the Minister indicated that only the Government or government-approved agencies could communicate publicly on anything to do with a self-isolation programme they were about to discuss.

The comments from Verrall allegedly occurred in a call on Friday which included Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran and, what Taylor says, were so many government officials he "lost count" of them.

However, the Minister claims all that was requested of the parties on the call was that confidentiality be observed around commercial sensitivities.

The call was held to discuss potential changes to pre-departure testing and merits of the Lucira Covid-19 test Taylor had used in his own self-isolation trial after returning from the United States in November last year.

Taylor says he found the opening remarks from Verrall on the call "entirely offensive" and "demeaning". He has detailed his version of events in a column on nzherald.co.nz today.

"The first item of the meeting was we all had to agree that the only people who would have anything to do with the comms [press release] about this meeting and our proposal, I mean the proposal that we put up, would be the Government and Air NZ," Taylor said.

"And I thought, that's not right, what about the cross-sector group? Because I thought we were talking about the self isolation trial and the use of Lucira."

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo: NZ Herald
Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo: NZ Herald
Taylor was at the meeting on behalf of Cross Sector Border Group - which represents the New Zealand business interests and their desire for a self-isolation plan that suits their international travel habits.

"That's who I represent. It doesn't need to be me, but it does need to be them [involved] in the comms [press release]," he said.

"I was about to have that discussion, which I think we might have got through when the next bombshell lands which was 'and Sir Ian, you will have to stop your bad faith articles, like the one last week'."

Verrall would not address the specifics of Taylor's allegations when questioned by the Herald on Sunday, but said she made clear to him he was free to continue to question the Government.

"On Friday I met with Sir Ian Taylor, Air New Zealand and Rob Fyfe to discuss pre-departure testing," Verrall told the Herald on Sunday.

"As is routine with commercially sensitive discussions, and reflecting the fact that future government decisions may need to be made, it was agreed by all parties, other than Sir Ian, that confidentiality would need to be observed.

"I made it clear to Sir Ian that within those bounds he was free to continue to publicly question and criticise the Government. Our work with Air New Zealand on this matter is ongoing."

The Lucira plan Taylor wanted to discuss was based off his own self-isolation trial from Dunedin to the US and back in November which the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) approved.

Taylor met with Grant Robertson in December about the Lucria self-isolation trial, and also in January with Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The call with Verrall was to be a continuation of that ongoing discussion, he says, after he worked with her over the Christmas period on it.

On February 1, Taylor wrote a column about Verrall helping him get in touch with Bloomfield "to pass on the contact details for a potential supply of rapid antigen tests that he was not aware of."

Taylor said he understood the Government had, off the back of this, ordered another 40 million tests, extending the total order to 65 million.

In that most recent column he praises "what can happen when government officials who want to work outside the box are given authority, encouragement even, to work alongside their private sector counterparts to get things done".

Taylor says he has never seen his columns as a criticism of the Government, but rather hoped they would be apolitical and encourage constructive public debate about problems in the Covid-19 response.

"I keep seeing this thing 'I'm attacking the Government'. No, there is a Pasifika concept called talanoa," he said.

"Talanoa is where you gather and you talk and listen with respect. So I came to this [Friday] meeting in the spirit of talanoa and the opening line of it from the other side had everything but respect. And I thought this isn't going anywhere.

"One of my greatest fears once you see all of these officials, some of which you've never talked to before, is that what's likely to happen is they'll come up with a plan and the plan will be just like everything else.

"They'll want to run another trial even though we've run a trial and go and test somewhere else. And more days, weeks and months will go past before we get a decision."

Lucria Covid-19 test

The Lucria Covid-19 test involved a self-administered nasal swab kit for those 14 years and older which can be bought without a prescription in the United States.

The test detects a nucleic acid from the novel coronavirus and provides results in 30 to 40 minutes.

The MIT Technology Review found it had a 94% rate in detecting Covid-19 in infected people, and a 2% false positive rate.