Covid 19 Omicron: MPs pay tribute to director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield

“Kia ora koutou katoa.”

It’s a phrase synonymous with probably the most recognisable public figure in Aotearoa – along with “across the motu” and perhaps “spread your legs”.

It’s also one director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has used in the nearly 300 press conferences he’s fronted since the beginning of the pandemic.

Its familiarity symbolises not only Bloomfield’s commitment to te reo Māori, but just how much of a presence he’s been in the lives of most New Zealanders since his first Covid-19 press conference on January 30, 2020.

Bloomfield on Wednesday announced he would be standing down at the end of July – almost a year before his term was due to end in June 2023.

His near-daily presence led to an infatuation never before seen for an unelected official, with his face adorning T-shirts and tea towels, countless memes, songs, and even a brand of hot sauce.

Bloomfield began his role in June 2018, and even led a different public health response, to the measles outbreak of 2019. But his legacy will undoubtedly be Covid-19.

He assured the public there was nothing untoward in his decision to resign, and also that he had “not a jot” of political ambition either, rather that it was “time”.

Bloomfield said the three prior directors general had done three to four years of five-year terms.

“The last two years could not have been more complex and challenging. I’ve been thinking for a while about when would be a good time to step down.”

He also said his family would be happy to have more time with him.

Incidentally, director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay, who stood alongside him for that first Covid-19 press conference, and public health deputy director Dr Niki Stefanogiannis will also soon be departing from the Ministry, with burnout understood to be a factor – as felt across the whole health sector, along with Covid-fatigue.

Bloomfield demurred when asked directly if the health reforms and new agencies Health NZ and Māori Health Authority were part of his decision.

Asked whether he had been asked to have a role in the new system, which comes into effect on July 1, Bloomfield said he was “happy with the role I had” because it was where he could add the most value.

He would also bed in the reforms as he was staying on as director general until July 29.

But it was also a very different role to the one he came into four years ago, and the timing was good for someone new to come in, Bloomfield said.

Health Minister Andrew Little said he’d have been “more than happy” for Bloomfield to continue, though also said the timing made sense.

“He has been nothing short of heroic in leading our response to Covid-19. But he is exhausted. He would be available for meetings literally morning, noon, and night and any day of the week.

“Then being at the helm of the ministry at a time of considerable organisational change. too. That’s just another strain and stress.”

Little said under the new system the director general’s – and ministry’s – role would become more focused on policy, monitoring and oversight, rather than commissioning and operational work as it does now.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of Bloomfield she “cannot imagine someone who is a better example of what being a true public servant is.

“He has been tireless. He has been dedicated. He’s taken an enormous load, and he’s contributed to the success that New Zealand has had and keeping people safe through this pandemic.”

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins gave a personal thank you to the person he said Kiwis knew as “the DG”.

His entire life had been dedicated to the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders, Hipkins said.

“You have saved thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives,” Hipkins told Bloomfield.

Bloomfield’s advice helped shape key decisions throughout the pandemic from the border restrictions to lockdowns.

He helped keep New Zealand Covid-free while the pandemic raged overseas, and when it couldn’t be kept out any longer much of the population had been vaccinated and a less-deadly variant had emerged.

His actions contributed to New Zealand’s per capita fatality rate being the lowest in the OECD, and globally-praised health response.

However, the road had not always been smooth. There was the testing debacle in 2020 when Cabinet declared all border-facing workers would be regularly tested, but nearly two months later most of them hadn’t been.

There were a raft of managed isolation and quarantine issues, slow adoption of saliva testing, issues with contact-tracing, ordering rapid antigen tests, sharing information with Māori health providers, and planning for post-elimination.

National Party Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said while as an Opposition MP he’d often held Bloomfield to account on such issues, he and National “acknowledge the enormous amount of work” he’d done for New Zealand.

Act Party leader David Seymour, a regular critic of Bloomfield including his regular presence at Cabinet and alongside the Prime Minister, said Bloomfield’s legacy was “a disaster”.

“I have nothing against the guy personally but PPE supply contact tracing, testing, vaccine rollouts … has been a disaster.

“The basic operational execution of the Covid-19 response has been a disastrous.”

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson meanwhile said Bloomfield’s greatest legacy would be that he “genuinely cared”.

“He genuinely cared about this work and was giving his all to ensure that New Zealand, and today it’s very clear, did have one of the best responses to the pandemic.”

Te Pāti Māori co-leader and health spokeswoman Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said Bloomfield’s resignation was a chance to ensure there was Māori leadership at the most senior levels of the health system.

“We need a system that understands us and is responsive to our needs, not a system that refuses to share power and resources.”

Asked if he had any regrets, Bloomfield said every day he had thought about things they should and could be doing better.

He had noted the nature of the feedback directed at the officials was “very gendered” – his female colleagues got a very different type of response to him “and I think that is terrible, and it’s something we need to do something about”.

The biggest decision that weighed on him was to go into the first lockdown and the advice he gave around that. It was something they had never thought they would do.

“There was a lot at stake,” he said.

Asked about some of the more peculiar moments, Bloomfield said the weirdest gift he ever received was “a pair of tie-dyed Thunderpants”.

“Am I going to miss the limelight? No, not a bit.”

He said there would be karaoke at his leaving party – “Heck yes!”

“I’ll kick off with ‘Friday I’m in love’ by The Cure.”

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