Some of the coverage given to Nurses for Freedom (Image: Madeleine Chapman)
Some of the coverage given to Nurses for Freedom (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

OPINIONPoliticsJuly 14, 2022

Please stop interviewing Voices for Freedom leaders

Some of the coverage given to Nurses for Freedom (Image: Madeleine Chapman)
Some of the coverage given to Nurses for Freedom (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

A group of supposed concerned nurses has received a lot of media coverage lately. But it’s just Voices for Freedom with a hat on, argues Mad Chapman.

Nurses just want to get back to work amid a health worker shortage. There are hundreds of workers who just so happen to be unvaccinated, who are desperate to help ease the health sector crisis. Why won’t anyone let these concerned citizens help?

That’s the message being spread, very successfully, by Nurses for Freedom NZ, a group purporting to be both populated by and representing registered nurses who lost jobs due to vaccine mandates. 

In the Herald on June 29, a report was published from protests in the Hawke’s Bay demanding an end to all mandates, including the vaccination requirement for healthcare workers who interact directly with patients. 

On Tuesday, Stuff published an article headlined “Plea by unvaccinated nurses to return to work”, which included quotes from Nurses for Freedom NZ founder Deborah Cunliffe. Then on Wednesday night, The Project ran a five-minute segment on the healthcare crisis featuring an interview with Cunliffe, where she spoke of the many nurses who just want to “get back to work”. 

Currently, patient-facing health and disability workers require a Covid-19 vaccination. Yesterday, there were 729 patients in hospital with Covid-19 and 11,464 new community cases. Hospitalisation numbers rising in what’s been deemed the new omicron wave.

If nothing else, Nurses for Freedom runs a very good marketing campaign. If only it wasn’t founded, supported, and largely populated by an anti-vax group known for spreading misinformation

This is serious but here’s a meme

Voices for Freedom, in case anyone has forgotten, is an anti-vaccine organisation founded by a food and wellness influencer, a crochet designer and a knitting designer. Voices for Freedom has campaigned extensively against the Covid-19 vaccine, including nationwide distributions of pamphlets making specific and false claims about the development and efficacy of the vaccine. As of February 2022, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had upheld 101 complaints about Voices for Freedom flyers, with rulings that they were “misleading” and “socially irresponsible”. 

Telegram groups of Voices for Freedom members show a rampant spread of mis- and disinformation, including claims of a new world order, and promises of “Nuremberg 2.0”. The Nurses for Freedom NZ Telegram group (which is locked) contains similar sentiments.

After a heavy presence at the parliament protests earlier this year, Voices for Freedom has turned to local groups and “industry support groups”. Cunliffe, who is the Wairarapa convenor for Voices for Freedom, founded Nurses for Freedom and is its spokesperson. She has claimed that “700 nurses and health care assistants” are part of the group but told The Project that the two groups aren’t related, despite acknowledging immediately after that Voices for Freedom supports Nurses for Freedom.

After the 700 nurses claim was made on Stuff and The Project, Paparoa – a group that researches the far right in Aotearoa – attempted to determine exactly how many registered nurses were in Nurses for Freedom. They found fewer than 10 registered nurses in the member list. Cunliffe herself is not currently a registered nurse and therefore couldn’t work even if the mandates were lifted. This fact was included in the Stuff article as an update added after it was published.

Voices for Freedom has had much success in the past securing platforms for its cause by presenting as harmless and concerned mothers who simply want to be part of society. Now, one would hope, it’s clear to both the public and the media that Voices for Freedom is a group operating on beliefs that are scientifically false and societally harmful. 

And yet, Nurses for Freedom continues to be given valuable airtime to insist that vaccine mandates be lifted, despite little evidence of real registered nurses within the group wanting to return to work. In fact, photos from the protests show a majority of signs branded with Voices for Freedom’s website. None of this has been helped by National leader Christopher Luxon all but suggesting an end to the mandates this week, saying, “There’s a conversation to have about a pathway to ultimately removing the health mandates … I think there’s about 400 nurses that we’re talking about that are unvaccinated, and I think the conversation should happen to say ‘well actually what kind of roles can they do and what kind of support can they offer.” Last night, RNZ’s Mediawatch covered the nurse protests and coverage well.

Both on The Project and online, the Nurses Society of New Zealand gave its position in no uncertain terms. “The reality is that unvaccinated nurses are not wanted back in the health service. They are a small minority – with views inconsistent with their professional obligations,” reads a tweet from the group in response to Stuff’s story on Tuesday. 

As much as we’d like to think fringe conspiracy groups are best left ignored, Voices for Freedom continues to grow, thanks in large part to supporting (a less generous person might say co-opting) local and industry-specific causes. With thousands of engaged members and increasingly concerning rhetoric, it seems likely these groups will attempt to wield their influence in the upcoming local elections. We can no longer ignore them but we certainly don’t have to give them another platform.

Keep going!