Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

SA Health has released a series of documents to a controversial vaccine company after it was threatened with a judicial review in the Supreme Court for failing to comply with a freedom of information determination from the state Ombudsman.

Sharen Pringle, business manager of Vaxine Pty Ltd, the vaccine development company founded by Flinders University researcher Dr Nikolai Petrovsky, threatened last week to apply for a judicial review in the South Australian Supreme Court to force SA Health to release freedom of information (FOI) documents she applied for in June last year.

SA Health identified 19 documents within the FOI’s scope but initially refused to release them in full, claiming exemptions afforded to information affecting personal affairs and internal working documents.

But the state Ombudsman overturned the decision on October 24, 2022, determining that “all documents be released in full save for the mobile phone numbers of people other than the applicant”.

SA Health did not challenge the decision within the 30-day statutory timeframe, meaning it was due to hand over the documents in late November.

Pringle said SA Health did not release the information despite her making three follow-up requests for the documents on December 5, December 13 and January 12.

In her most recent written request to SA Health CEO Robyn Lawrence, Pringle included a draft application to the Supreme Court contending Lawrence “has failed in the performance of her duty to comply, or direct compliance of the Agency, with the (FOI) Act”.

The draft judicial review application, which Pringle threatened to file this week, asked the Court to enforce the Ombudsman’s October FOI determination.

The draft application also sought reimbursements of costs from SA Health. The cost of filing an application to commence proceedings in the South Australian Supreme Court is $2808.

SA Health released the documents to Pringle this morning. InDaily sought comment from SA Health as to why it did not comply with the Ombudsman’s direction after it was issued in October.

“The Freedom of Information documents relevant to Professor Petrovsky were provided to the applicant today,” SA Health said in a statement.

“Ms Pringle was contacted last week and advised that the Department’s FOI Officer was on leave over the Christmas period, and that the documents requested would be sent when they returned on Monday 16 January 2023.”

SA Health also said it’s recruiting an additional FOI officer to help manage the volume of applications received by the Department.

Pringle said SA Health only informed her they would action her request after she floated the Supreme Court judicial review.

Pringle filed her FOI request with the Central Adelaide Local Health Network on June 20, 2022, requesting “the following people provide emails sent and received by them referring to Nikolai Petrovsky, and/or Vaxine Pty Ltd, Louise Flood, Michael Cusack, Nicola Spurrier, Chris McGowan”.

Petrovsky has been publicly critical of COVID-19 vaccines approved by the federal government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and an advocate of Vaxine Pty Ltd’s own coronavirus jab, Covax-19.

Petrovsky’s vaccine has not been approved by the TGA.

Pringle, Petrovksy’s wife, told InDaily she was seeking access to information related to Vaxine Pty Ltd’s clinical trials and vaccine mandate exemptions for participants.

“We’ve been trying to get them to give our clinical trial participants an exemption,” she said.

“I was really looking at… what decisions they were making and why they were making them on behalf of some of the clinical trial participants who needed those exemptions to go back to work.”

According to the Ombudsman’s determination, SA Health “failed to determine” Pringle’s FOI application within 30 days and was deemed to have refused access to the documents.

Pringle filed for an internal review, which, according to the Ombudsman, SA Health also failed to respond to within 30 days – prompting Pringle to request an external review with the Ombudsman.

SA Health submitted to the Ombudsman that information in 11 of the documents were “partially exempt” as they contained information affecting personal affairs and internal working documents related to the decision-making functions of the Government.

But the Ombudsman rejected both arguments, writing: “It appears to me that none of the additional redacted information would constitute personal affairs and absent any explanation from the agency I am not inclined to determine as such”.

“Having reviewed the redacted information, I am unable to identify a relevant decision-making function of the Government, a Minister or an agency, nor ascertain why disclosure would be contrary to the public interest,” he wrote.

“I am therefore not satisfied that the agency has justified its claim of exemption.”

It’s not the first time Ombudsman Wayne Lines has criticised SA Health’s FOI practices. According to a public log of his FOI determinations, he has reversed at least three SA Health access refusals in the past two years.

In June 2022, he reversed an SA Health decision to deny former ABC journalist Rebecca Puddy access to documents related to COVID-19 travel exemptions, in an FOI case that dragged on for more than a year.

Lines commented at the time that the “level of torpidity demonstrated by the agency in its handling of this matter is simply baffling”.

“I have commented on the agency’s poor handling of FOI matters on numerous occasions in past matters,” he wrote on June 15, 2022.

“However, even by the agency’s own standards I consider its conduct in this matter can only be described as beyond deficient, and it would be remiss of me not to comment on it.”

In March 2021, he reversed an SA Health decision to refuse access to FOI documents requested by doctors’ union chief Bernadette Mulholland, accusing SA Health of delaying his external review by three and a half months by failing to respond to correspondence from his office.

Former federal senator and FOI advocate Rex Patrick, who provided advice to Pringle in his capacity as a consultant, said: “It is clear that the Department of Health have a total disregard for their FOI responsibilities.”

“Whilst I understand that the Department is under stress, people that are being watched perform better. Transparency is important,” he said.

“A review of published Ombudsman decisions shows that the Department of Health and Wellbeing has not been meeting its FOI obligations for well over a year.

“Ms Pringle should not have had to threaten to initiate mandamus proceedings in the Supreme Court to get the documents the Ombudsman determined she was entitled to. It’s a sign of very poor governance. It’s most unfair and there is no excuse for it.”

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