New Zealand’s health minister has resigned after a series of gaffes during the coronavirus crisis.
David Clark was caught on a mountain-biking trip during lockdown, admitted driving his family 12 miles for a walk on the beach and last week caused outrage by blaming a popular health official for lapses in testing.
Clark said it had ‘become increasingly clear to me that my continuation in the role is distracting from the government’s overall response to Covid-19’.
New Zealand has not seen a new domestic case since May 22 and has completely scrapped its lockdown restrictions at home, but the country’s border – and therefore its $40billion tourism sector – remain firmly shut.
New Zealand health minister David Clark will remain in his role despite mountain biking and going on a coastal walk 20 kilometres away during the lockdown
Clark had been stripped of some of his responsibilities in April after defying the strict lockdown to go mountain-biking near his Dunedin home. The minister was caught after leaving a van with his own face on it in a nearby car park.
He then revealed that he had also driven 12 miles to the beach to take a walk with his family while the government was asking people to make historic sacrifices by staying at home.
He said at the time: ‘I’ve been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me.’
PM Jacinda Ardern said at the time that she would normally have fired him but the country could not afford massive disruption as it fought the virus pandemic.
Clark’s latest blunder came last week when he appeared to blame the director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, for allowing some returning travellers to leave quarantine without being tested.
Bloomfield, who has become hugely popular during the health crisis and was standing behind Clark as he spoke, looked crestfallen by the remark and critics said it was like ‘kicking a puppy’.
Announcing his resignation, Clark insisted he had a warm relationship with Bloomfield and singled him out for praise.
Pictured: Doctor’s Point beach on New Zealand’s south island where David Clark drove his family for a walk during lockdown
The 12-mile distance to the beach from Dr Clark’s home is pictured. The walk was not considered local to where he lives in Dunedin’s northern suburbs
‘He is an exceptional public servant,’ Clark told reporters.
‘Thank you Ashley and your team for the extraordinary work you have done for our country during our most serious health crisis in a century.’
Clark added: ‘New Zealand’s Covid response is simply too important … so I’ve made the call that it is best for me to stand aside.
‘It’s no secret health is a challenging portfolio. I have given it my all.’
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern denied she had leaned on Clark to resign, but said his presence in her government was a ‘distraction’.
‘Last week I had discussions with Dr Clark. We talked about how important the Covid response was and the need for that to be the primary focus as a government,’ she said.
‘He reached the conclusion his ongoing presence in the health role was causing too much distraction. It was his view that he needed to go.’ Clark said on Thursday he intends to remain in parliament as a backbencher.A
Ardern has appointed Chris Hipkins as his replacement until a September election, but has promised to separate the two portfolios if her government is re-elected.
Her re-election was seen as far from certain before the pandemic began. However, her leadership during the health crisis has propelled her Labour Party to a record 57 per cent in a recent opinion poll.
60 per cent had Ardern as as their preferred choice for PM, up more than 20 points on the last poll and the highest score for any leader in the Reid Research poll’s history.
The survey also indicated an overwhelming 92 per cent backing for Ardern’s Covid-19 response.
PM Jacinda Ardern (pictured) said at the time of David Clark’s beach walk that she would normally have fired him but the country could not afford massive disruption as it fought the virus pandemic
New Zealand only confirmed its first case on February 26, but had shut its borders by March 19.
Gatherings of more than 100 people were also banned New Zealand from March 19, and schools, bars and restaurants were ordered to close from March 24.
Ardern announced a total Level 4 lockdown from March 26, at which point there were 363 confirmed cases.
The first stage of the lockdown kept Kiwis inside their houses, except for trips for health reasons or the supermarket.
The four-tier alert system meant that restrictions were slowly eased as the infection rate began to slow to a trickle.
The country has since moved to its lowest Alert Level 1, with minimal restrictions on public life – but strict controls still in place at the border.
After a 24-day streak with no new cases at all, New Zealand has seen 26 new cases in the last 17 days but all are at the border. The last new case in the community was announced on May 22.
New Zealand has seen 1,530 cases and 22 deaths in total.