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New Zealand Covid experts take legal action against employer over harassment from public

University of Auckland physics professor Shaun Hendy, whose work on Covid-19 scenario modelling has helped inform the New Zealand government’s response to the pandemic.

Phil Walter | Getty Images

Two of New Zealand’s top Covid-19 experts are taking legal action against their employer, the University of Auckland, over its response to the harassment the scientists have faced from the public amid the pandemic.

Shaun Hendy, a physics professor, and Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of medical science, filed separate claims with the Employment Relations Authority, against the vice chancellor of the University of Auckland.

Hendy and Wiles claimed their employer had “responded inadequately or not at all to their health and safety concerns” amid harassment from members of the public who “disliked or disapproved” of their commentary on the coronavirus.

According to a ruling dated Dec. 24, the Employment Relations Authority approved the pair’s requests to move their claims up to New Zealand’s Employment Court.

The ruling stated that Hendy and Wiles had “suffered vitriolic, unpleasant, and deeply personalised threats and harassment that has had a detrimental impact” on their physical safety and mental health. It also said the harassment they faced has not only continued but has been “getting worse and ‘more extreme’ in nature.”

Hendy’s work on Covid-19 scenario modeling has helped inform the New Zealand government’s response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Wiles was named the ‘New Zealander of the Year’ in 2021 for her prominent role in explaining the science of the coronavirus pandemic to the public and media.

The scientists said they are “expected” to provide public commentary as part of their employment. However, this is something that the vice chancellor denied, though acknowledged that they are “entitled to do so.”

Hendy and Wiles started raising concerns about the harassment in April 2020. According to the ruling, they had suffered harassment via email, on social media and video sharing platforms, as well as in the form of in-person confrontations and threats of physical confrontations.

For example, the ruling detailed how Wiles had been the victim of “doxing,” where someone’s personal information is shared online. She had also received an “associated threat to physically confront her at her home.”

In addition, Hendy was physically confronted in his office on the university campus by someone who threatened to “see him soon.”

According to the ruling, Hendy, Wiles and another colleague were urged in a letter from the vice chancellor in August to keep their public commentary to a minimum. The letter also suggested that they take paid leave to enable them “to minimize any social media comments at present.”

However, the vice chancellor denies instructing the scientists to minimize their public commentary, claiming it “merely advised the applicants that doing so is an option they may want to consider.”

Hendy and Wiles aren’t the only Covid experts to have been the subject of harassment amid the pandemic.

Chief White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has talked about receiving death threats, which have required him to be protected by federal agents.

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