'I've been an idiot': Health Minister demoted after breaking lockdown rules

Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 7 Apr 2020, 9:20AM
Photo / ODT

'I've been an idiot': Health Minister demoted after breaking lockdown rules

Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 7 Apr 2020, 9:20AM

Health Minister David Clark has been demoted after driving his family 20km to a beach to go for a walk in the first weekend of the lockdown - a breach that the Prime Minister says he would normally be sacked for.

"At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I've let the team down. I've been an idiot," Clark said in a statement this morning.

Jacinda Ardern said he would be demoted to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings and stripped of his Associate Finance portfolio.

Clark, who offered his resignation, sounded forlorn as he started a round of media calls this morning, saying he felt "like a complete dick to be honest".

And speaking to Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking, Clark said he "wasn't thinking" when he drove to the beach with his family.

His wife had asked him if it was within the rules, and he had decided to go because the family would still be within its household bubble.

"I make no excuses for it, Mike. I got it wrong," Clark told Hosking.

"I've made a fool of myself. I need to be really clear on that and apologise to New Zealanders."

He said the Health Minister in the middle of a global pandemic was an incredibly important role, and he had a long way to go to rebuild the trust of New Zealanders.

Clark has already come under fire for driving about 2km last week to go for a mountain bike ride.

Ardern said: "Under normal conditions I would sack the Minister of Health. What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses.

"But right now, my priority is our collective fight against Covid-19. We cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector or to our response. For that reason, and that reason alone, Dr Clark will maintain his role."

But Ardern said he would pay a price for breaking the rules.

"While he maintains his Health portfolio, I am stripping him of his role as Associate Finance Minister and demoting him to the bottom of our Cabinet rankings.

"I expect better, and so does New Zealand."

Clark apologises to the public, PM

Clark said he had apologised to Ardern.

"Last night as part of my preparation for the Epidemic Response Committee, I provided the Prime Minister with a complete picture of my activity outside my home during Alert Level 4.

"That included the fact that on the first weekend of the Alert Level 4 lockdown I drove my family approximately 20 kilometres from our house in Dunedin to Doctor's Point Beach for a walk.

"This trip was a clear breach of the lockdown principles of staying local and not driving long distances to reach recreation spots."

He said it was his responsibility as Health Minister to set an example to other New Zealanders.

"I've apologised to the Prime Minister for my lack of judgement and offered her my resignation."

He said he had also driven his family to a walking track about 2km from their house for a walk and gone for occasional runs, all of which were local and within the rules.

Clark appeared on morning media today - including the Mike Hosking Breakfast on Newstalk ZB - and will later be grilled at the Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by National leader Simon Bridges.

Clark told Hosking he served at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, and it was up to Ardern if he should still be Health Minister after the Covid-19 crisis is over. "I've got this wrong and I'll be judged accordingly."

He said he had done had any other breaches of the lockdown besides the drive to the beach and drive to the mountain bike ride.

He had received many texts and Facebook messages and he knew how angry New Zealanders were, and the sacrifices they were making.

'I felt like a complete dick if I'm honest'

Clark told MediaWorks Kiwis were losing their jobs and making big sacrifices - in that light his actions were wrong and he had "no excuse".

He knew the rules of the lockdown, he said. "I was on the radio telling people not to go out... I wasn't thinking straight."

"I don't have any excuses, I don't have a better answer. I know I've let myself down, I know I've let the team down and I know I've let New Zealanders down."

Clark said he was working "some fairly long hours", when asked how he had time to get out and exercise so much.

"I've received the texts, I've seen the Facebook(s). I've hurt New Zealanders."

He had been running locally about four times, which he understood was appropriate.

"What is clearly wrong is driving to the beach. That is clearly unacceptable, it's outside the rules."

Asked whether he had realised he was breaking the rules at the time, Clark said his wife had asked him if the trip to the beach was OK and he had decided it was. He said he had recalled that last night while preparing for today's select committee.

"It was bloody obvious to me at that moment, I felt like a complete dick if I'm honest," he told MediaWorks.

He had called the PM to offer his resignation. "She was pretty angry and disappointed."

"I have been very focused on my job and I had not thought about it twice. That's no excuse...[but] I have been very focused on the Covid-19 response."

Asked whether the rules had been clear enough at the start, he said that didn't matter - as the Minister of Health he should have set an example.

Health authorities and Ardern have repeatedly said not to engage in activities that were risky and could see emergency services called out at a time when their ERs needed to free to handle the Covid-19 crisis.

MediaWorks' Duncan Garner read Clark a message from a person who had not been able to farewell their deceased parent properly due to the lockdown.

"I have seen flowers on the fence myself in my own suburb from someone who's died recently," Clark replied.

"I know people won't have been able to go to that funeral and people won't have been able to go to the birth of their children."

Asked if he would step down at the election, he said he had not thought about that: "I've got a way to go to build trust with the public."

Clark said everyone was focused on getting out of alert level 4 and the lockdown but there would still be a range of rules to abide by in lower alert levels.

Regarding this morning's mental health announcement from the Government, there would be provision of some online tools and resources so people could talk to other adults and children about mental health issues. The resources were based on tools developed during the Canterbury earthquakes.

Clark most regretted letting down the public, rather than the PM, he said.

On Sunday Ardern said that those who deliberately flouted the lockdown rules were "idiots", but she would not be drawn when asked if Clark was an idiot.

She has stressed the need to double down on compliance efforts so that the gains of the first 15 days of the lockdown are not squandered.

 Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

The rate of new cases appears to have levelled off and New Zealand appears to have avoided the exponential growth in new cases that has affected other countries, including Italy, Spain, the US and the UK.

Yesterday there were 67 new cases, 22 fewer than the previous day.