Unpopular New Zealand Health Minister quits after COVID-19 lapse

WELLINGTON (AFP) – New Zealand’s Health Minister resigned yesterday after a public backlash over his breach of lockdown and his criticism of the civil servant responsible for the country’s world-leading coronavirus response.

Outgoing minister David Clark was already under a cloud after breaking lockdown in April and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who faces an election in September, admitted his presence had become a distraction.

“It’s essential our health leadership has the confidence of the New Zealand public,” she said.

“As David has said to me, the needs of the team must come before him as an individual.”

Clark described himself as “an idiot” in April after admitting he breached strict lockdown orders by taking a 20-kilometre drive to the beach with his family. He kept his job but was kept out of the public eye, with Health Department Director-General Ashley Bloomfield appearing alongside Ardern to give daily updates on the coronavirus crisis.

As the success of New Zealand’s response became apparent, the bespectacled Bloomfield became wildly popular, with fans printing his face on tea towels and posting tributes on social media.

It meant there was public anger when Clark criticised Bloomfield for a series of mistakes linked to border quarantine and footage went viral of the minister admonishing his subordinate as the civil servant stood by looking crestfallen.

Critics said it was “like kicking a puppy” and accused Clark of throwing Bloomfield “under a bus”.