After weathering personal and professional storms, David Clark has stepped down from the health portfolio to avoid being “a distraction”

Health Minister David Clark has announced his resignation, following months of negative headlines over personal slip-ups and his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Speaking at Parliament on Thursday morning, Clark said while he had given his all in the challenging health portfolio, it had become clear that his continued presence in the role was serving as a distraction from the Government’s pandemic response.

“I have always taken the view that the team must come first, and New Zealand’s Covid response is simply too important in my view, so I have made the call to stand aside.”

Clark first came under pressure during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown, when it was revealed he had breached government guidance by both mountain biking on a Dunedin trail and taking his family to a beach in the city.

After the news broke, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would have sacked him under normal circumstances, but was keeping him in the position due to the need for continuity in the crisis response.

However, the Health Minister came under further pressure for the Government’s handling of border management and isolation facilities, after gaps in the system were revealed.

Clark’s reticence to take accountability for the errors, instead placing responsibility on Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, drew public outrage.

“An exceptional public servant”

The minister said on Thursday morning that he took full responsibility for all decisions made in the health system during his time in the role.

“Although ministers are generally advised against being publicly effusive about public servants, I want to put on record again that it has been an honour to work alongside the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

“He is an exceptional public servant. Thank you, Ashley, and your team, for the extraordinary work you have done for our country during our most serious health crisis this century.”

Clark denied being pressured by Labour colleagues to step down, saying he had made the decision himself and believed it was the right time to go as the country was on a more stable footing.

“We are in a position that is the envy of the world.”

Clark said he had mixed feelings about leaving the role, as he would be unable to shepherd through health and disability system reforms but could spend more time with his constituents in Dunedin.

Jacinda Ardern has chosen Chris Hipkins to fill in as Health Minister until the election. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Speaking to media following Clark’s announcement, Ardern said she had received his resignation on Wednesday after talking to him last week “about how important the Covid response was, and the need for that to be our primary focus”.

“He reached the conclusion his ongoing presence in the health role was causing too much distraction to the Government’s ongoing response to Covid-19, an assessment I agree with.”

Ardern would not directly say whether a viral video of Clark appearing to blame Bloomfield for border slip-ups was the catalyst for her discussions with him.

“Regardless, anything that acts as a distraction, anything that takes away our time and energy from our response to Covid-19, we just as a country cannot afford, so that was a very frank conversation.”

Ardern said Chris Hipkins would take over as Health Minister until the election, saying the Government’s Covid-19 response was on a solid footing despite Clark’s departure.

“It’s essential our health leadership has the confidence of the New Zealand public. As David has said to me, the needs of the team must come before him as an individual.”

Ardern said she remained open to Clark taking up a different ministerial role after September 19, although any portfolio he did assume would not be in health.

“I have not closed that door: as I say, I do think minister Clark has made a significant contribution to Cabinet.”

Asked how Hipkins would juggle his new health role with his education and state services portfolios, she said his experience with “an operational ministry of significant scale”, as well as oversight of the state sector, would help him in the job.

Hipkins said he had worked closely with Bloomfield during the Covid-19 response, and said of the health role: “I will be giving it my all up until the election.”

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

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