In this long-form interview with sociologist Jodie Bruning, she describes the alarming disconnect between the academic literature and the Government’s Covid response, its barrage of untransparent law-making, and the subsequent impact on our rights – and why the Covid-19 primary Acts must be repealed.
This interview, conducted over email, has been edited for clarity.
TLG: You recently filed a very thorough OIA request to three different government departments, and a Minister – the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Hon. Chris Hipkins, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Business, innovation and Employment – asking for information about the science they used to underpin Covid-19 response policies. Why?
JB: Over the last two years myself, as well as New Zealand and international colleagues in public health and medicine have kept up with the published and peer reviewed literature, the sort you find published in PubMed and in Google Scholar.
We’ve focused primarily on four areas that we believe are relevant to decision-making over the Covid-19 event.
- First, what the risk profile is of Sars-Cov-2, the respiratory coronavirus that can lead to Covid-19, for severe disease and death
- Second, whether the mRNA Pfizer (codename BNT162b2) vaccine, or injectable, which uses a completely new technology, is safe
- Third, whether the mRNA injection is effective in preventing hospitalisation and death
- Fourth, what other therapies can safely and effectively (meaningfully) prevent hospitalisation and death.
We’ve observed patterns of response in the policy and regulatory arena that don’t appear to have focused on these issues. Risk arises when an outbreak produces a severe burden on the health system that results in hospitalisation and death. A pandemic can be announced, but the health impact across the population may be mild, for example other health conditions may present a greater burden on the health system.
As governments have limited resources, considerable judgement is required. For example, the diseases of obesity, mental illness and cancer are all at epidemic proportions, therefore it’s really important to understand and balance, what presents the greatest threat to health systems in order, in the public interest, to correspondingly weigh how resources should be allocated.
If the disease is mild across the population, but interventions are mandated, there is potential to produce harm, impacting human rights and promoting distrust in government. Such a response would not be proportionate to the risk.
I want to understand specifically what the Minister for Covid Response, Chris Hipkins, with such extensive power during a national emergency, was personally privy to. Not just the cherry-picked stuff. I can’t see anything in the Official Information Act that would prevent this happening.
I believe that civil society has a right to understand to what degree this senior official has been exposed to knowledge evident in the scientific and Pfizer literature. Is this not a fair expectation?
Accountability and Covid response decision making
Theoretically(!), democratically accountable governments that impose rights limiting legislation, should also be looking at the potential indicators of disease severity, including the case fatality rate, unusually severe morbidity, unexpected mortality patterns, and unusual complications. The degree to which a pandemic event represents a severe health risk to the majority of the population can then be assessed. This demonstrates accountability (as opposed to tyranny) and promotes trust in the governing bodies, in the national interest.
This might also include accounting for the use of radically new technology, with unfamiliar ingredients such as lipid nanoparticles, which are known to be toxic.
The injectable had two major bugs that differed from old vaccines: First, the mRNA injection is based on only a segment of the old Wuhan Sars-Cov-2 – so it was unlikely to confer long-lasting immunity because it wasn’t the whole coronavirus, and there was a massive mutation of the spike protein with Omicron.
Secondly, the mRNA injectable product sends instructions into the body to manufacture the antigenic and inflammatory spike protein. Exposing perfectly healthy people to a self-manufacturing inflammatory protein was always going to involve risk. This is gene therapy.
However, without triangulating the data in the literature with local data and absent mandatory reporting of adverse events, the information used by elected representatives and staff is deficient. It’s narrowly configured and warped.
Proportionality and one-size-fits-all policy
The OIA request is important, as these agencies and individuals across New Zealand’s government machinery have mandated injections. People who are not at risk must take the novel gene therapy to protect at-risk people, requiring them to be human shields. Then government has acted to prevent doctors accessing antivirals that have been used for decades. The moral and ethical implications of these actions are substantive.
Another motivation for the OIA request, is that core principles in the 1956 Health Act appear to have been jettisoned. The Health Act has been deployed to control an infectious disease outbreak, yet principles enshrined in the Health Act, such as proportionality, have been totally ignored.
It was clear from early 2020 that those at risk were the very elderly and those with multiple health conditions. But because this literature was excluded from any policy-relevant debate or reporting, there was this entrenched idea that people who were not at risk must fall in line.
Instead, it appears that the prevention of cases, infection, became the basis for all restrictions – even though Sars-Cov-2 infection for most of the population was experienced as a mild respiratory infection.
You can see the capture of thinking in the Commentary that was released following the brief public consultation to the October-November 2021 Covid-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill (no 2).
The Commentary doesn’t discuss prevention of hospitalisation and death, and the select committee appears to think the spread of Covid-19, which is different for everyone, is some sort of generic concept:
“Minister or Director-General can make an order to require people to refrain from taking any specified actions that contribute, or are likely to contribute, to the risk of the outbreak or spread of Covid-19. They can also require people to take any specified actions, or comply with any specified measures that contribute, or are likely to contribute, to preventing the outbreak or spread of Covid-19.“
What is crazy, is that this ignorance directly side-lines historic norms around the management of infectious disease – particularly relating to respiratory viruses. It is a well-known fact that as respiratory viruses circulate and natural population immunity builds, they mutate to become more transmissible and less pathogenic.
Do we have data on serologically confirmed infections that are asymptomatic? It’s an important metric to understand disease severity, but it’s an often-neglected variable. Conversely, where are the reviews on post-vaccination efficacy waning and breakthrough infections?
The Amendment Bill was very clear, it sought to expand powers, to smooth the process of secondary legislation and the Bill increased penalties to prevent non-compliance with Orders. Orders are produced without public or Parliamentary scrutiny. But without transparency and accountability – there’s a risk of tyranny.
All these dynamic uncertainties required that bureaucrats and lawmakers took such risks into account by reviewing the scholarly literature.
I get the impression these actors are happy to blackbox their decision-making. That’s not good enough, because of the precedent which becomes established for the next emergency event. The state has a fiduciary obligation to demonstrate accountability and transparency. And the media, on behalf of the public, have an obligation to demand this.
Following the science
At key meetings before the Government doubled down on vaccine mandates, the Vaccine and Immunisation Programme Steering Group did not consider the limitations of the treatment: waning efficacy, breakthrough infection (vaccine failure) or the ethics of myocarditis as a side effect (which they knew about). None of this content is included in the so-called risk summary, on page 20.
To neglect this, there must have been absolute belief in industry assurances of safety and efficacy and the Pfizer trial data, which we now know never had an endpoint requirement of preventing hospitalisation and death.
Then we saw the manufacture of consent through modelling practices at Te Pūnaha Matatini, which were directly funded by the departments that signed the contract with Pfizer to supply the mRNA (BNT162b2) product to every man, woman and child.
We don’t see funding for independent risk monitoring. Is this good practice?
TLG: You have spoken with concern about the volume of secondary legislation that has been passed in the shadow of the Covid Response Act, and under emergency status. Can you tell me a bit about this. What have been some of the more alarming pieces of legislation and why is it problematic that it’s secondary legislation?
JB: There seems to be this terrible silence where lawyers, and particularly public law experts, seem unwilling to draw attention to what I believe is a very scary problem.
In May 2020, basically overnight, David Parkers’ Covid-19 Public Health Response Act was passed without any public consultation. This is the over-riding Act that gives the Ministry of Health powers to then roll out what is called delegated, or secondary legislation, which are known as Orders. These ‘Orders’ have all the powers of primary legislation, but they don’t have to get approval via Parliament or through consultation with the public. They get rolled out by the Minister.
For two years the New Zealand government has used the excuse of controlling the outbreak and spread of infection to justify law-making. The Covid-19 Public Health Response Act doesn’t refer to prevention of hospitalisation and death, it seeks to ‘avoid, mitigate, or remedy the actual or potential adverse effects of the Covid-19 outbreak’.
However, what this actually means remains undefined. A great many other issues are clearly defined – just nothing requiring that all measures prevent hospitalisation and death in order to meaningfully protect public health.
Then you have Chris Hipkins’ Covid-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Bill – passed in 48 hours. The consequent Covid-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Act 2021 amends the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 to force ‘affected workers’ to accept the mRNA injection as a precondition for employment, and to limit public access of people who don’t have a Covid-19 vaccine certificate.
Then we see this automatic pivot to mandatory vaccination, without any clause requiring that these vaccinations must be safe and effective, and that they must protect health.
What is alarming is that the ‘public interest’, according to Hipkins’ Vaccination Act concerns the continuity of services for ‘public safety’, the provision of lifeline utilities, maintaining trust in public services and access to overseas markets. There’s no requirement that the measures protect health.
Then we have a cavalcade of secondary legislation, ‘Orders’ that remain based on the premise of chasing infection. Orders for example, ratchet in rules regarding Covid-19 vaccination certificates; formalise face covering rules, including the formalisation of exemption passes tied to identity.
Where are the recent, methodological, reviews by the Ministry of Health of the literature on medical grade face-coverings in community settings to support these ongoing requirements?
New exemption pass rules stem from a new Order, amending a principle Order, where the purpose was based on preventing and limiting the risk of the outbreak or spread of Covid-19 – when Covid-19 is likely at endemic status already.
We see new rules inserted, such as the one that dictates that people can carry out certain work if they haven’t been boosted, but they have to have authorised evidence they’ve had Covid-19. For all those people that had Covid-19 before 15 May, and did a test at home, bad luck. Your personal account is not sufficiently legitimate. It’s chilling, as the rules and regulations keep being churned out, with no tangible accountability.
Schedule 4 was also added to the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, with a new list of boosters that all apparently last for 6 months, and are based on an out-of-date spike protein. This despite over a thousand studies in the published and peer reviewed literature demonstrating that the spike protein presents physiological risk to the human body.
Everything is alarming. The barriers to understanding the convoluted process of law-making and ongoing jiggling of existing legislation, add to the public risk.
TLG: You have also used the term ‘rights-limiting’ to describe a lot of this secondary legislation. Can you elaborate?
JB: We sort of have a tumbling effect that fuses the right to say no to an effective medical experiment, with a human right to health.
The mRNA injection involves technology that is vastly different to any other vaccine that has been approved for general use in the history of mankind. The fast tracking of the treatment meant that it evaded traditional clinical trials. And based on the absence of data, only provisional approval was granted.
However, the bureaucratic push meant that when harm was demonstrated through adverse events reporting that was far beyond any ratio that normally would have led to a withdrawal, there was no political will to withdraw the treatment.
New Zealand has an alarming record of failing to protect human rights, because our government can’t steward in the national interest, and this is now documented at the global level. We have declining human rights across education (bad), health (fair), housing (incomplete data), food (bad) and work (very bad). This is connected to how bad the information environment is.
When people must bow and succumb to compulsory interventions, such as compulsory masking and medication in order to earn an income, their freedom and rights are compromised. The primary and secondary legislation are rights limiting, but it’s the secondary legislation that has the loophole where norms of transparency and accountability continue to be jettisoned.
Bureaucrats and the judiciary appear unable to ethically parse the implications of increasing household precarity. The majority of Kiwi families finely calibrate expenses to income. For most families, the cost of housing and the cost of living has accelerated beyond increases in incomes over the past two decades, squeezing household discretionary income. In such an environment, notions of ‘full employment’ may simply indicate people are working multiple jobs in order to survive, rather than any economic success.
Therefore, when people are given a so-called ‘choice’ to leave their profession after two or four decades, and when these bureaucrats dismissively infer that they can get a job elsewhere, they ignore the fact that expertise is not readily transferrable into unmandated professions.
Households making this choice will be exposed to excessive downwards pressure on household income, which can make accessing healthy food (remember, health is a human right) and even access to a warm, dry house difficult.
The wellbeing government is the most extraordinarily brutal government New Zealand has had for decades. Debt makes people more pliable. The capacity for a healthy person who is not at risk from Sars-Cov-2, in one of these vulnerable households, to step outside their profession is negligible if they consider they or their children won’t be able to access basics that ensure household wellbeing is sustained.
The public are doing their best. From what I understand, in 2021/2022 there were 633 complaints to the Human Rights Commission mentioning mask or exemption.
TLG: After filing your OIA request, you then sent it to a long list of academics, public watch dogs, MPs etc. so that they were aware of the requests. Do you want to explain the rationale for doing this?
JB: By emailing this wide group, I wanted to poke a stick at the cognitive dissonance that maybe a large proportion of them are sensing, to prod them to contemplate that there might be a pattern of public-interest failure that urgently needs to be addressed, if not for civil society, for their own grandchildren.
Many of these people perhaps recognise, or suspect, a distortion in our nations’ capacity to recognise and respond to risk. The scientific literature shows us that current managerial cultures, private-public partnership cultures and associated hyper-competitive funding cultures have stifled creativity in science.
They’ve led to scientists chasing the tail of innovation rather than protecting human and environmental health.
Critical thinkers across arts, science and economics have been all but extinguished. Many of us personally know senior academics and staff across public health and university academia who have railed against these shifts for at least three decades.
These individuals have recognised that the structural and cultural shifts that undoubtedly get rid of scientific and academic freedom, are detrimental to not just environmental and human health, but to democracy. These precious few dissenters are becoming less and less, and I know that academics who step outside these boundaries certainly face barriers to achieving professorships and senior positions.
Our public sector has been schooled to not express so-called political opinions, but by not speaking up, they fail to protect the public interest, because everything is political when the outcome is the public interest versus the aggregation of financial or political power; accelerating pollution, and/or declining human and environmental health. Is there a line in the sand where this might change?
Possibly the biggest red flag for the positioning of science in service of the market rather than the public interest, is that oversight of New Zealand’s science enterprise is predominantly held with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and indeed, this institution has had a massive role in the Pfizer injectable rollout.
In universities, as funding shifts to royalties dependency, private public partnerships and valorising STEM disciplines above all else – resources are directed into these areas. So where do the philosophers, the ethicists, the sociologists, the economists go? Critical thinkers that might look at how and why we direct resources, for what purpose? They go into a dingy back corner office, struggle against the sighs of colleagues, and then they quietly fade out of academic life.
For academics and scientists in such environments, everything becomes high risk, because if you step out of line you don’t get funded. You become a nobody. So, for 20 years, there’s been a massive chilling effect on the academic and scientific community because the market driven model is the only way to go.
This is why very few have protested the ongoing ratcheting of rights, and mostly only those at the end of their careers. They don’t have the time or funding or culture to review controversial and contested literature, it’s simply not their business.
I can’t tell you how many scientists I’ve spoken to who recognise that we’re chasing patents, rather than addressing the – usually manmade – drivers of human and environmental health decline.
I wanted to possibly jiggle the cognitive dissonance that many of them might be experiencing, in such a way that they recognise a moral line may have been crossed. By not doing the mahi, we’re maybe creating more harm – more people are being hospitalised and dying than if this work was being done.
How do we start this conversation? By pulling the cobwebs away a little bit, applying a little bit of sunlight, whatever euphemism you want to apply.
What is the outcome you are hoping for?
Nothing is linear, so, I understand that what I am doing is in tandem with The ‘Hood’s children’s court case, the work of NZDSOS, NZTSOS, NZLSOS, The Health Forum, Voices for Freedom, you own work, the Plan B group’s efforts, Guy Hatchard’s work and others.
But the outcome? The overarching Covid-19 primary Acts must be repealed.
We need to find a space for critical research and science, and critical journalism, to understand the barriers to journalists who seek to work across the science, policy and ethics interface. We need to ask what went wrong with public law over this time, and why couldn’t our public law academics question the degree to which current policy and law was counter to the public interest.
We need to appreciate that the gargantuan funding barriers to this sort of multidisciplinary enquiry, in a political climate where $473 million for a fourth booster can be simply ‘set aside’ without any critical questioning by high level actors in science, media and law.
We need to understand that current science policy has failed to take into account the force of vested interests in producing and driving science and regulatory approvals.
The outcome I am hoping for, is that exactly the type of people that I have CC’d in, will start, even hesitantly, asking such questions.
If select committees continue to dismiss overwhelming public critique when given the chance to provide input on health emergencies, or digital identity schemes and digital cash, and instead continue apace with legislation that carries severe rights and wellbeing implications, we must admit that we do not live in a representative democracy.
In this environment, utilitarian authoritarianism directed by powerful interests with vast financial resources and far greater capacity for networking and lobbying than the average member of the public, will undoubtedly prosper.
An initial response from Hipkins
I’ve just heard back from Chris Hipkins’ office. He’s been Minister for Covid-19 response for two years. But he’s handballed the Official Information Act request to the Ministry of Health, who have the same request. Now I have to go to the Ombudsman.
I’m not the first one. Hipkins appears happy to avoid scrutiny. We’ve seen complaints following Official Information Act requests to Hipkins when he was acting as the Minister for Covid-19 Response, dropped by the Ombudsman because Hipkins’ portfolio was switched from Covid-19 to the Minister for Police (remembering he is also the Minister of Education). The Ombudsman has since apologised. However, my request was deliberately made after this portfolio shift.
The implications are tremendous. Will the government simply shift portfolios – game accountability – in order to avoid potential disclosure that might draw attention to the failure of process?
Jodie Bruning is a consultant sociologist based in New Zealand. Her work explores governance cultures, policy and the production of scientific and technical knowledge. Her Master’s thesis explored the ways science policy creates barriers to funding, stymying scientists’ efforts to explore upstream drivers of harm. Bruning is a trustee of Physicians & Scientists for Global Responsibility. Papers and writing can be found at talkingrisk.nz and at jrbruning.substack.com and at Talking Risk on Rumble.