The world wants to move on but Covid still lingers

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But Dr Ashley Bloomfield says it is a good time for him to go

Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaking at the 11th Annual Indian Newslink Lecture held on August 16, 2021 in Auckland
(INL Photo by Narendra Bedekar)

Wellington, July 23, 2022

After leading the country’s Covid-19 response for the last two years, Dr Ashley Bloomfield is stepping down from the role of Director-General of Health at the end of the month.

The softly spoken public servant became a household name early in the pandemic, his image gracing T-shirts, tote bags, mugs and even tattoos.

Having been appointed to the Director-General role in mid-2018, Dr Bloomfield was officially set to finish his five-year tenure in June 2023 but decided to resign from the complex and challenging role early.

His last day on the job will be 29 July, with Dr Diana Sarfati appointed as Acting Director-General of Health until a permanent appointee takes up the position.

Optimism over current wave

Covid-19 cases have been inching upwards over the last several weeks but Dr Bloomfield said he is optimistic the wave will recede.

“We have seen over the last week that it has levelled off which is great,” he told Kim Hill of Saturday Morning Show.

His plans for an epic ‘Karaoke Party’ farewell were already derailed by the recent rise in Omicron cases, but he said that caution is the way to go until things settle down.

“I did not want my legacy in the pandemic to be taking out some of our tip-top politicians and the leadership of the health sector at a super-spreader event,” Dr Bloomfield said.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield with Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Ewan Richardson at the 11th Annual Indian Newslink Lecture held on August 16, 2021 in Auckland
(INL Photo by Narendra Bedekar)

Although Dr Bloomfield is leaving, the crisis that he presided over is ongoing.

It was announced on Friday (July 22, 2022) that primary schools are expected to move from encouraging mask-wearing to enforcing it again when Term 3 starts on Monday (July 25, 2022).

While the change may be frustrating for some, Covid-19 requires flexible responses, he said.

“I think that there will be a high level of general acceptance of the role that masks will play, especially through winter in the future,” he said.

Dr Bloomfield himself caught Covid-19 in May at a World Health Organisation (WHO) Conference in Switzerland, where he said that wearing masks was surprisingly low.

Living with Covid

“There is this talk about the rest of the world having moved on. Well, they might have moved on in terms of what they are doing, but the virus has not moved on. It is creating just as much havoc as it has in the past. The UK has higher rates of infection and hospitalisation even in the middle of summer (than we do in winter) is something to worry about. There is a general commentary in New Zealand and elsewhere that we are moving on and that we are living with Covid,” he said.

According to Dr Bloomfield, that is premature.

“The virus is not done with us yet. We are still in a pandemic. The WHO has not withdrawn that categorisation and the virus continues to evolve. We have to keep our wits about us,” he said.

There have been many stories about the strain on emergency rooms and doctors and nurses the past few weeks, but Dr Bloomfield defended the response.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield with Auckland Mayor Phil Goff at the 11th Annual Indian Newslink Lecture held on August 16, 2021 in Auckland (INL Photo by Narendra Bedekar)

“The pressures the health system have always been there and they are not unique to New Zealand. I would say that we were better prepared this winter than in the past. We also knew that after two years of no flu, we would have a heavy flu season,” he said.

He rejected claims that the health system was caught by surprise by the Omicron surge.

Shortages are localised

“We certainly had time to prepare and did. But you cannot suddenly produce a new workforce from somewhere by magic, certainly not in a situation where a lot of that time the borders were closed, although we were getting new workers in from overseas. Some commentaries have suggested that there are less staff now. Actually, there has been a big increase between 2021 and 2022, including nursing and medical staff,” he said.

Dr Bloomfield said that he does not dismiss the views of people on the ground but said that shortages were sometimes localised.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield with former Labour MP Dr Rajen Prasad and Prem Prasad at the 11th Annual Indian Newslink Lecture held on August 16, 2021 in Auckland (INL Photo by Narendra Bedekar)

“I might have a different view from the clinicians on the ground. In my view, what one particular clinician, service, institution or organisation may experience may not reflect the experience across the system. In the case of PPE, the problem is not the supply but in getting the equipment to the place where it is needed,” he said.

Concerns over Maori and Pasifika

Responding to concerns that Māori and Pasifika were not prioritised properly in the vaccine rollout, Dr Bloomfield said that border and health care staff and those above 65 years of age were the priority for the vaccine drive, but many Māori and Pasifika were also included.

“For our first two months of the rollout of the over-65, our highest rates of vaccinations in that group were amongst Māori and Pasifika. It was ahead of non-Māori, and non-Pacific. We knew that the group that would take the longest, probably because it required repeated effort to build trust, the longest to get higher rates amongst was our younger Maori,” he said.

Dr Bloomfield said that he respects the media and its role.

“It is a fundamental pillar of a strong democracy and it did not always feel that way when you were up there facing the music and something had gone wrong, which I had to a few times. But they are doing their job and a big part of their job is making sure that the government, including the public services, is accountable to the population,” he said.

Good time to go

With big changes happening in the structure of New Zealand’s health system, it seemed a good time to leave. Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora replaced the country’s 20 District Health Boards at the start of July, in one of the biggest overhauls in Aotearoa history.

Dr Bloomfield said that the changes are exciting.

“The big challenge in any health system is getting this right balance between what is done at a national or regional level and the responsiveness to local communities, and the DHB model allowed that in some part, that responsiveness to local communities. There is a risk that you can move the deck chairs around but nothing really changes. The reform thought through carefully,” Dr Bloomfield said.

He said that he used to tell his children that if he had not taken up the medical profession, he may have tried to become a Police Detective.

“Maybe that would have been another career direction. I really enjoy observing little bits of information and putting them together to create a picture. It served me well in my current career,” Dr Bloomfield said.

The Saturday Morning Show is a product of Radio New Zealand. The above story has been published under a special agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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