David Clark’s misadventure in mountain biking was a stupid, but ultimately forgivable offence. The bigger problem is the continued uncertainty around what is and isn’t appropriate activity in lockdown, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

Given the pressure he and his Cabinet colleagues are under, it is little surprise Health Minister David Clark leapt at a rare opportunity for some fresh air this week.

But his hopes of a quiet break were punctured on Thursday night, when Stuff reported that Clark had driven to a park two kilometres from his Dunedin home to ride a mountain bike trail – attracting a fair amount of public anger.

The recreational activity did not seem an explicit breach of the lockdown guidelines, but it was certainly a marginal decision from the minister in charge of overseeing our health system at a time when it is under enormous strain.

Clark did not help himself with an initial statement saying that “as a Health Minister I try to model healthy behaviour” – implying he should be praised rather than chastised for his break.

Politicians should be, and are, held to a higher standard than the rest of the public when it comes to misdemeanours and indiscretions.

That is why Transport Minister Phil Twyford offered his resignation after being caught making a phone call on an airplane after the doors had closed (Ardern did not sack him, but did strip him of his Civil Aviation Authority responsibilities).

But the punishment still needs to be at least somewhat proportionate to the crime, something which could not have been said of a dismissal – despite some critics baying for blood.

Removing your Health Minister in the middle of an almost unprecedented pandemic, with no obvious or easy replacement, would have bordered on lunacy.

Was it stupid for Clark to drive to a mountain bike trail in a van with his cheerful grin plastered on the side? Undoubtedly.

But was it dangerous, or reckless? Some may argue, but based on Clark’s description of “an easy, local track” that seems highly unlikely.

Removing your Health Minister in the middle of an almost unprecedented pandemic, with no obvious or easy replacement, would have bordered on lunacy.

Ardern’s decision to deliver a public scolding, as well the invective hurled his way by the country at large, seems a more reasonable price to pay.

The bigger problem is the lack of clarity on what exactly qualifies as lockdown-appropriate exercise.

Pressed on this, ministers and officials repeat their mantra: “Stay safe, stay local.” But exactly what qualifies as safe and local may differ depending on who is defining it, as we have seen from some mixed messages to date.

Ardern said Clark had not followed guidance to avoid activities “where there is a higher risk of injury” – but with Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield enthusiastically endorsing cycling overall, is mountain biking on a low-grade trail really that much more dangerous than hitting the streets?

The Covid-19 website does provide some more detail, ruling out swimming, surfing, hunting and tramping, but there are still plenty of gaps.

Ashley Bloomfield is a self-proclaimed cycling advocate – but exactly what forms of cycling are permissible in lockdown are not entirely clear. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

A reluctance to be overly prescriptive is understandable – any strict list of approved activities is sure to leave loopholes (a point made by Finance Minister Grant Robertson on Friday), while it would add to the sense of an authoritarian regime tightly controlling its citizenry.

But the alternative – people concocting their own rules and enacting public shaming or vigilante justice on those who breach them – is worse, and leaves uncertainty about what can and can’t take place.

There has been similar confusion over the concept of a “bubble buddy” for New Zealanders who live alone and face social isolation during lockdown.

Speaking to media on March 24, Ardern seemed to suggest a combining of two households into one bubble was allowed.

That was reinforced by messaging shared by ministers on social media – but as Stuff reported this week, there appears to have been an abrupt and unpublicised U-turn, with police intervening in a two-household bubble in Nelson and the Ministry of Health saying the guidelines would be revised.

Bloomfield confused matters further on Friday when asked about it, seeming to incorrectly suggest the example given by Stuff related to three one-person households (it was about a one-person household and another two-person dwelling).

Some confusion and subsequent clarification is natural: to a degree we are all fumbling around in the dark, politicians and bureaucrats included.

But such mix-ups cannot be allowed to endure, not when things are going to get much worse before they improve.

A little over a week into lockdown, there is already a sense of tensions rising, tempers fraying, mistakes being seized upon where previously they would have been forgiven.

There are still at least three weeks to go, and almost certainly more, and it is vital that we all keep calm and collected.

But the Government can help with that by offering the public greater clarity – both in its words and its deeds.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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