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Labour’s Peeni Henare made the comments after criticism levelled at the Government over a vaccine roll-out strategy which advocates say disadvantages tangata whenua.
For every one non-Maori or Pacific person who gets their first dose of the vaccine, just 0.61 Maori people on average get theirs.
Mr Henare said the low numbers were not for lack of trying.
"I travelled the country to continue to promote the vaccine amongst our people," he said.
"For whatever reason, our people didn’t come forward to get the vaccine.
"So now what we have is [that] Delta has come to New Zealand, we find ourselves in lockdown, there’s a sense of urgency about it, and I’m glad to see that the Maori numbers are improving."
But those numbers are not improving as quickly as Maori health advocates would like.
Dr Rawiri Jansen — who quit the Government’s immunisation advisory group in April over concerns his voice was not being heard — said the roll-out strategy was consistent with a racist system that disadvantaged tangata whenua.
Data released by the Ministry of Health shows vaccine uptake among Maori is lower by proportion of population than any other ethnic group in New Zealand.
Dr Jansen said that outcome was predictable.
"I’m disappointed in the Ministry of Health and their inability to achieve what they promised in the beginning which was equity in the vaccination programme," he said.
"It is consistent with a health system which consistently, persistently, underserves Maori. And we know that racism is a feature of that system."
Research in The New Zealand Medical Journal released last September showed Maori were 50% more likely to die from Covid-19.
Dr Jansen said there was evidence that Maori aged 40 had a similar risk to their health as Pakeha aged 65.
In order for equity to be achieved in the roll-out, he advocated for Maori and Pacific communities to be given access to the vaccine at a younger age.
Dr Jansen also took issue with a "colour-blind" booking system that was at odds with good outcomes for Maori because it defaulted to "mainstream Pakeha settings".
"Maori and Pacific people have found it much harder to engage with text messages to tell them to go to a booking app, so that hasn’t worked well for us.
"It was predicted, and it was predictable, and it underserved our population."
He said he agreed with Prof Papaarangi Reid’s comments last week that the unfolding situation was a breach of the Treaty.
Dr Jansen’s sentiments are echoed by Dr John Mutu-Grigg, an orthopaedic surgeon based in Auckland who serves as chairman of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeon’s Maori health advisory group.
Dr Mutu-Grigg agreed the Government’s programme had not been designed with equity in mind.
Maori and Pasifika people had a lower life expectancy and were prone to disease at a younger age, which was a key point the Government should have taken into consideration, he said.
"Because we started with the higher age groups, we just get less Maori in those groups by design.
"It hasn’t taken into account that Maori will be more at risk at a younger age.
"Maori are more likely to live in intergenerational households so therefore they’re more at risk of passing this on. This hasn’t really been taken into account in this process."
But even when Maori were able to access a vaccination clinic, they still faced issues.
In Kaitaia, disgruntled non-Maori who were not able to access the vaccine at times that suited them had forced the hand of the district health board to refer them to Maori providers, Dr Mutu-Grigg said.
The result was a "swamped" Maori clinic that ran out of vaccines and was not able to service the needs of its own community.
The Northland District Health Board was approached for comment but did not respond.
Mr Henare did not disagree that the health system was systemically racist and inequitable, saying Government had already acknowledged that.
"We poured a fair bit of money to allow iwi and hapu to send messages to their whanau to continue to promote it. For whatever reason, we find ourselves lagging behind."
In Invercargill, where Mr Henare visited as part of a national promotional tour, Awarua Whanau Services chief executive Mata Cherrington said
although she had a good relationship with the DHB overall, she believed it, alongside the Ministry of Health, was removed from the reality of front line work.
In the early days of Covid-19, the ministry had dictated what information was given out to the community.
"That’s not helpful to us," she said.
Ministry group manager for Covid-19 equity Jason Moses said the ministry had taken a whanau-centred approach to boost Maori vaccinations.
"This means that when any member of the whanau is eligible to book, they can book in other members of their whanau to be vaccinated at the same time," Mr Moses said.
He said district health boards were targeting Maori communities and getting "great feedback".
The ministry has dedicated a $39million package to improve Maori health outcomes. That includes building provider infrastructure and workforce capability, a national virtual support network, and funding vaccine champions.
According to the Ministry of Health’s latest data as of Saturday more than 194,133 Maori had received their first vaccination, a third of the eligible Maori population.
Just over 104,000 had also had their second vaccinations.