Then-Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon announcing Naitonal's support for the University of Waikato Medical School with (let) Health spokesperson, Shane Reti and Tertiary Educaiton spokesperson, Penny Simmonds and the Vice Chancellor of the University, Dr Neil Quigley.

One of National’s showpiece election promises appears to be in more trouble with Waikato University yesterday withdrawing its call for tenders to develop a new medical school.

The move will delay any substantial increase in the number of doctors being trained in New Zealand.

The University’s decision just over a week ago to call for tenders without Government approval clearly embarrassed Finance Minister Nicola Willis and forced ACT leader David Seymour to remind National that he had a deal with them over the school.

That deal is in the ACT-National coalition agreement and says the school cannot proceed without a full business case.

The University announced yesterday afternoon that it was withdrawing the call for tenders on the Government procurement website GETS.

“Following discussion with and advice from MBIE, the University has removed its ROI for a Division of Health precinct,” the statement said.

“While this means the ROI is now on hold, we will re-engage with interested parties when we can provide clarity on the project’s timeline and details.”

That contrasts with its call for tenders two weeks ago.

Despite the National-ACT coalition agreement requiring a full cost-benefit analysis before any binding agreement was entered into to establish the medical school, the call had gone ahead.

 After POLITIK raised questions about the University’s move, it modified the advertisement on GETS, saying: “Our Property team issued the ROI document on the Gets.govt.nz with wording that didn’t clearly reflect it is still a proposal.

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“We have since corrected the wording on the site and with potential vendors to reflect the construction would be for a Division of Health precinct and to house our growing health offering in nursing, pharmacy, midwifery, and, should the proposal proceed, would also be the site for a medical school.”

The amended wording has now been completely removed.

A spokesperson for the University yesterday told POLITIK the  University had removed its Registration of Interest on the Gets. govt.nz website for a Division of Health precinct “following discussion with, and advice from MBIE and other stakeholders.”

“While we had earlier corrected the wording on the site to reflect the fact that the Waikato Medical School aspect of the precinct is still subject to Cabinet approval, we have decided that greater clarity should be provided to better reflect the information required for the business case process and we will look to prepare a new ROI to be posted later this year. 

“The University has communicated with interested parties that the ROI is on hold and that we will look to re-engage when we can provide further clarity on the timeline and details of the project.”

Those “other stakeholders” are highly likely to have included the Minister of Health, Dr Shane Reti.

A spokesperson for Reti told POLITIK that the University’s move yesterday was a  “technical adjustment.”

But interestingly, the spokesperson also referred to the coalition agreement.

“The Medical School Proposal is progressing as per the coalition Government’s agreement, including a cost-benefit analysis,” the spokesperson said.

It seems that the coalition agreement is at the heart of the problems the University is having.

It is clear that ACT is holding the Government to its undertaking to carry out a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, and it agrees with the University to pull the call for tenders.

Reacting to the news that the University had pulled all its advertising calling for tenders, ACT leader David Seymour told POLITIK: “That is the right thing to do, and it shows the coalition is strong.”

Multiple sources, both within the Beehive and without, have told POLITIK that ACT is highly sceptical about the Waikato Medical School proposal.

New Zealand First are also thought to agree with them.

And there may be some sceptics within National.

NewstalkZB’s Heather du Plessis Allan, a week ago, asked Finance Minister Nicola Willis whether the Government was going ahead with the medical school.

“We are going ahead with the business case, and it’s always been our coalition commitment that we should not progress that school until we have a business case that demonstrates we can get value for money and better services for New Zealanders,” the Minister replied.

Willis said it could take “a few months” to get the business case together.

duPlessis-Allan then asked why the University was advertising for a property developer to build the medical school.

“I guess they’re very optimistic,” replied Willis.

The problem now is that the University was hoping to start construction of the new school at the beginning of next year and be completed in 2026, ready for its first students in 2027.

Even then, it was going to be a year behind the original timetable proposed by then-opposition leader Christopher Luxon in July last year, when he announced the Government would fund up to $280 million of the expected $380 million cost of the school.

He promised that the school would produce 120 extra doctors by 2030.

However, given that the University is proposing a four-year undergraduate course followed by two years of hospital placement and the delays in construction, it would seem that even if it went ahead, it would not be producing new GPs until possibly 2034.

Luxon’s problem is that he made the medical school the centre of National’s plans to produce more doctors, particularly General Practitioners.

In July last year, he announced his party’s support for the Waikato School and said: “A National government I lead will open a new medical school in Waikato to boost the number of doctors being trained.”

He went on to say that increasing the number of home-grown doctors was vital to delivering the public services that New Zealanders deserved, “and National sees this as an essential and long-term investment.”

However, he and the National Party policy team made that commitment without any detailed economic analysis.

There was widespread scepticism about the economics of the proposal, with the Tertiary Education Union’s Waikato University organiser, Shane Vugler, saying everyone agreed that New Zealand needed more doctors, but the financial case for a third medical school “did not stack up”.

“We’re a small university. We don’t have significant science or health science capacity, so we have real questions about whether we’ve got the infrastructure to support a medical school here, too,” he said.

“The university had run deficits four years in a row, and Vugler said he was sceptical about whether it could raise $100m in donations.”

According to emails released to RNZ, members of the National Party caucus also expressed doubts to Reti about the school’s costs before the policy was announced.

Labour’s former Health Minister Ayesha Verrall responded to National’s proposal last year and said the previous Labour Government preferred to train more doctors by using existing medical schools in Auckland and Dunedin. She said this was the fastest and most cost-effective way to increase doctor numbers.

“Creating a new medical school requires more lecturers and facilities already at those existing medical schools,” she said.

“There are a huge number of professions that feed into the training of doctors — anatomy, behavioural science, Maori health, neuroscience, you can probably get 40 on that list. It’s intensive and therefore expensive.”

The Government appears in danger of getting caught with the worst of all possible worlds on this proposal; either it retreats now, and Luxon has to perform an embarrassing public backdown, or it perseveres with the business case, hoping that it can make the numbers add up to Seymour’s satisfaction, all the while losing precious time to train more doctors.