New Zealanders had been confined to their homes for more than two weeks when photographs emerged of David Clark’s campaign van parked at a mountain-biking track in Dunedin.
His vehicle was the only one there.
The health minister had flouted lockdown rules to hit the tracks at Signal Hill, angering the general public who by and large were adhering to the strict guidelines to stay at home and only take exercise locally.
The prime minister chastised Clark and demoted him, but stopped short of stripping him of his portfolio, saying she didn’t want to rock the boat during the crisis.
Ten days later when Clark owned up to another lockdown breach – driving his family to a beach 20km from his home – public outrage reached fever pitch, and calls for his resignation became shouts. Clark offered Ardern his resignation, but she refused – a decision for which she is now being criticised by the opposition.
“At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I’ve let the team down. I’ve been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me,” Clark said in a statement at the time.
“As the health minister, it’s my responsibility to not only follow the rules but set an example to other New Zealanders.”
New Zealand’s efforts to halt coronavirus in its tracks have been praised around the globe. Earlier this month the country effectively eliminated the virus, and infections were kept below 1,500, and fatalities at 22.
But New Zealand’s success at containing the virus seems to owe little to the country’s health minister.
In early June it was revealed that two British women were released from border quarantine early without being tested. They then proceeded to travel around the North Island – and were eventually found to be positive for Covid-19.
The women’s situation wasn’t an isolated incident. A shambolic border quarantine process has seen dozens of people released from hotel quarantine without being tested, and the health ministry then began a frenzied search to track them, contain them, and test.
Clark fronted a press conference last week to explain the bungles, but instead of owning up to mistakes, he blamed Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the much-admired director general of health who had guided Kiwis through the lockdown and earned millions of fans.
Social media users were horrified on the health official’s behalf. His face had been “heartbreaking”, said one; “like kicking a puppy”, said another. “Is Dr Bloomfield OK?” asked a third.
The backlash against Clark was immediate, with political commentators calling his conduct “brutal”, and saying he had thrown Bloomfield under a bus.
His tenure then began to be seen as a major liability for Ardern’s re-election chances in September, as well as her global credibility as one of the first countries to eliminate the virus.
Clark’s resignation – whether it was voluntary or not – was welcomed in New Zealand, with political insiders calling it a critical and necessary step to salvage the government’s reputation in handling the crisis.
Honourable decision by David Clark. Hipkins will be a safe pair of hands til the election.— Neale Jones (@nealejones) July 1, 2020
One political commentator, Neale Jones, said it was an “honourable decision”, while RNZ’s Jane Patterson described it as “inevitable”.
“Momentum against Clark had been building,” writes Patterson, saying his lockdown breaches were “a huge embarrassment to the government”.
Clark has said he intends to stand for re-election at local and government level. But with his lockdown breaches one of the biggest scandals of New Zealand’s otherwise playbook perfect handling of the pandemic, he will have a hard task winning back the public’s hearts and minds.