New Zealand health minister David Clark quits over handling of Covid-19 outbreak

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Quenstown
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Mitchell/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Mitchell/AP

New Zealand’s health minister has resigned after a series of major missteps during the coronavirus crisis which saw him draw the ire of the public and the prime minister.

Dr David Clark has held the health portfolio since Labour was elected in 2017 but has largely been viewed as an ineffectual minister who has struggled to make an impact during his term.

During New Zealand’s lockdown, Clark was twice discovered breaching the strict stay-at-home rules; once by going mountain biking, and a second time when he took his family for a beach trip 23km from his Dunedin home.

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Clark apologised for both incidents, telling the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, he was an “idiot” and had shown poor judgment.

Ardern responded by demoting Clark in the cabinet rankings but held back from firing him, saying the government needed his expertise during the public health emergency. Ardern said it was a priority to keep stability in government during the crisis.

In the week’s since Clark’s demotion public dislike of the minister has been growing, with many praising the government’s overall coronavirus efforts but making a point to single out Clark for criticism.

Throughout lockdown Clark stayed put in Dunedin and only made rare public statements, leaving the lion’s share of the Covid-19 public-facing role to the director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, who gained a positive profile for his calm handling of the crisis and grace under pressure.

Since lockdown ended in May Clark has repeatedly been caught out at press conferences, on occasion appearing ill-prepared. Last week the minister appeared to blame Bloomfield for errors in border quarantine and refused to take responsibility for multiple failures, including people being released from quarantine without being tested. This further angered the public, whose fondness for Bloomfield remains strong.

Calls for Clark’s resignation have grown louder, with political commentators saying he has repeatedly proven himself a liability and had begun to tarnish the government’s success in eliminating the virus. He was also distracting from its campaign to win another term in September’s elections.

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Ardern on Thursday confirmed she had accepted Clark’s resignation, with education minister, Chris Hipkins, taking on the health portfolio in what is being viewed as a caretaker position until after the elections.

Ardern said Clark’s leadership as health minister had become a “distraction” from the wider fight against Covid-19.

“David has come to the conclusion his presence in the role is creating an unhelpful distraction from the Government’s ongoing response to Covid-19 and wider health reforms,” Ardern said.

“It’s essential our health leadership has the confidence of the New Zealand public. As David has said to me the needs of the team must come before him as an individual.”

“Our response to Covid is on a stable footing and I have full confidence that minister Hipkins will oversee the portfolio with thoroughness and diligence.”

The National Party leader Todd Muller said Clark’s resignation was “too little, too late” as Clark had not delivered in his role as health minister for some time. Ardern had to take responsibility for failing to fire him sooner, saying “she faced a huge test of her leadership and she failed”.

“National has been calling for his resignation for months following successive failures, including breaking lockdown rules and, most recently, having two women leaving quarantine who weren’t tested for Covid-19, under his watch,” Muller said.