Labour’s Dr David Clarke, who has held the health brief since 2017, officially stepped down from his post on Thursday, saying his presence was “distracting” from the government’s battle against the novel disease.
Clarke was deemed to have flouted his own public health advice twice in April; once by going mountain biking, and a second time by taking his family for a breach trip 23km (14 miles) away from his Dunedin home in south New Zealand.
He quickly apologised for the transgressions, telling Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern he was an “idiot” for showing poor judgement. However, Ardern responded to the second breach by demoting the 47-year-old in her cabinet rankings.
Ardern, who has been widely praised for her handling of the pandemic, held back on firing Clark, saying that his expertise was needed to steer New Zealand through the crisis.
But Clarke came under fire again in recent weeks after a series of quarantine errors at the New Zealand border.
Two UK travellers who later tested positive for the novel disease were allowed to leave quarantine facilities without being tested – just weeks after Ms Ardern had declared victory over the disease.
Clarke appeared to blame director-general for health Dr Ashley Bloomfield for the missteps, a move that provoked anger among the public who are highly supportive of the latter.
Ardern accpeted Clark’s resignation, saying it was “essential our health leadership has the confidence of the New Zealand public”.
“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,” she added.
“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.”
Education minister Chris Hipkins will take on the health minister role in a caretaker capacity until after the elections in September.
As of Thursday morning, health officials in New Zealand had reported over 1,500 coronavirus cases and recorded just 22 deaths.
The pacific island nation has been able to keep its cases by introducing lockdown measures and border shutdowns early in the pandemic.
Anyone entering the country – including New Zealand nationals – must self-isolate for 14 days at government-run quarantine hotels.