Hipkins apologises to Charlotte Bellis over inaccurate statement

Source: 1News

Chris Hipkins has apologised to New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis over comments he made earlier this year about her MIQ situation that "were not accurate".

He said he also apologised for releasing personal information about Bellis "and for the subsequent distress it caused her".

In January, Bellis was pregnant and living in Afghanistan. She spoke publicly about her plight to get a space in MIQ.

Bellis had said she was unable to stay in Qatar as it was illegal to be unmarried and pregnant, while her partner was stuck in Kabul.

After the Government's announcement that the borders were scheduled to reopen in late February, Bellis booked flights to return home. She was only allowed to stay in her partner's home country of Belgium for three months of every six, and the pair only both had visas to live in Afghanistan.

A senior Taliban contact had told her they could live in Afghanistan. After the first border opening date was delayed and the new MIQ spots paused, Bellis and her partner applied for an emergency MIQ spot. They were rejected and told to apply under another category.

At the time, Hipkins responded to Bellis in his capacity as the Covid-19 Response Minister. He said that the "emergency allocation criteria includes a requirement to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days".

On Wednesday, Hipkins said in a statement: "Whilst it was generally a requirement for applications to be made within 14 days of travel the MIQ guidelines did have an exception to this requirement. I have since been made aware that Ms Bellis was relying on special circumstances in respect of her application as she was in Afghanistan and that MIQ deactivated her application in error."

He also said in January that Bellis "was offered New Zealand consular assistance twice since she returned to Afghanistan in early December but has not responded". Hipkins then encouraged her to "take up any offers of assistance".

Charlotte Bellis with her newborn daughter.

"I have subsequently been made aware that these comments were not accurate," he said on Wednesday.

In fact, Bellis was contacted once in August and another time in December while she was in Europe, he said.

"In August she was not pregnant and communicated she did not need assistance. In December she was not in Afghanistan and it followed the Government’s announcement that the border would reopen to NZ citizens in February when she planned to return ahead of her child’s birth.

"Ms Bellis had not previously been offered, nor ever refused, an MIQ spot," Hipkins said.

Hipkins said he wrote to Bellis on March 15 to say sorry. Hipkins acknowledged the apology three months after via a statement on Wednesday.

Bellis and her lawyer released an open letter to Hipkins in February which said Hipkins made untrue statements about her application to MIQ. At the time, lawyer Tudor Clee said Bellis was "looking at options", claiming Hipkins breached her privacy.

Hipkins' office declined to comment about the open letter at the time and said they would be communicating directly with Bellis and her lawyer. Hipkins also said at the time he wouldn't apologise to Bellis given she was considering her legal options.

In March, National's Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop said an answer to his written Parliamentary question revealed Hipkins "not only breached Charlotte Bellis’' privacy by releasing her personal details, but also ignored Ministry of Foreign Affairs instruction that those details were 'not for public comment'".

On Wednesday, reacting to news of Hipkins' apology, Bishop tweeted: "Good."

After going public about her situation, Bellis' MIQ application was approved in February. She returned to New Zealand in early March to give birth.

READ MORE: Afghanistani mother responds to pregnant Kiwi journalist's plea

In a statement Bellis said she stood by her actions and thanked Hipkins for his apology.

"The inaccurate information the Minister released to the media caused widespread confusion amongst the public and resulted in unwarranted verbal abuse towards myself and Jim.

"We stand by our decision to speak out about our experience with MIQ to shine a light on a system that was no longer fit for purpose and affecting so many New Zealand families; as well as hold Minister Hipkins to account for his response to our personal case.

"We look forward to putting this behind us and enjoying a new chapter with our daughter," she said.