Ashley Bloomfield says it was by happenstance he was at the helm of the health system when the pandemic struck.
The man who has appeared large as life on tea-towels, T-shirts and TikTok had specialised in public health medicine, examining the social determinants of health as a registrar and later steeping himself in strategy, policy and management.
By the time Dr Bloomfield arrived in the Ministry of Health’s top job, he had a decent service record in the ministry and DHBs. Few public health doctors have had that experience, he says of the road that led him unexpectedly to become the best-known civil servant New Zealand has yet seen, thanks to his long-term commitment to fronting the media about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retired specialist GP Peter Moodie has in various roles had a close eye on the pandemic response. Dr Moodie is clear that Ashley Bloomfield “was the right person at the right time”.
The response, however, was peppered with administrative delays and problems – with managed isolation and supply of equipment, for instance.
Dr Moodie says Dr Bloomfield’s team at the ministry was not up to their boss’ standard and the issues that emerged would have been the downfall of most chief executives.
Before starting as director-general of health in June 2018, Dr Bloomfield had three years as chief executive of Hutt Valley DHB. He had previously led service integration and population health at Wellington’s three DHBs. In the early 2000s, he headed the National Screening Unit, had about five years as chief advisor public health at the ministry and spent a year in policy at WHO in Geneva.
Says University of Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson: “I don’t think we have ever had a director-general with such a wide range of significant experience...I think he did a pretty good job.”
New Zealand Doctor Rata Aotearoa asked Dr Bloomfield what he was proudest of achieving in his latest and most prominent role.
He says he has much to be proud of, but foremost is the New Zealand COVID-19 vaccination programme’s high coverage.
The programme was instrumental “in safely opening up the country while protecting the population”, says Dr Bloomfield.
His aim early on in the pandemic had been to keep the virus out until people were vaccinated, “and then my work on it is done”.
Before the COVID-19 onslaught dominated his job and public persona, he had the health inequities experienced by tangata whenua brought home to him in a very public way, at the Waitangi Tribunal in 2018.
Health Services and Outcomes Kaupapa Māori Inquiry (Wai 2575) claimants testified to the many effects of the Crown’s systematic failure to meet its Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations to serve Māori in ways that worked for them.
Dr Bloomfield was called to respond. He says he was questioned hard but respectfully.
“It strengthened my resolve to make sure we re-established the Māori health directorate in the ministry.”
The directorate has had “great leadership” from deputy director-general Māori health John Whaanga, who challenged and supported the ministry to strengthen its focus on equity and Māori health, Dr Bloomfield says.
“That stood us in good stead when the pandemic hit…
“We had a lot to learn but, through John, we had established relationships to draw on and get the results.”
He points out early COVID-19 vaccine uptake among Māori and Pacific peoples was equitable for those over 65, the age group that was given priority once border and health workers were vaccinated.
“One of the key reasons we actually took the overall approach of elimination is we knew, based on history and… inequities, the groups that would have been hit hardest would be Māori, Pacific and disabled people…
“Arguably, the main driver of our approach was to protect the vulnerable.”
Ministry records show that, after six months, the vaccination push had ensured 496 in every 1000 Māori people over the age of 65 had had two doses of the vaccine. This exceeded the rate in the non-Māori, non-Pacific community, where coverage in that age band was 424 per 1000.