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.
Clark sounded forlorn as he started a round of media calls this morning, saying he”felt like a complete dick to be honest”.
Clark has already come under fire for driving about 2km last week to go for a mountain bike ride.
Jacinda Ardern said he would be demoted to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings.
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“Under normal conditions I would sack the Minister of Health. What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses,” Ardern said.
“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.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says in normal circumstances she would sack David Clark for his actions. Photo / Mark Mitchell
“I expect better, and so does New Zealand.”
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.”
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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 has 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 is due to appear on morning media today – including the Mike Hosking Breakfast on Newstalk ZB at 7.35am – and will later be grilled at the Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by National leader Simon Bridges.
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 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.
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.
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.
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