Resignation ‘the correct call’

Out of step with her colleagues and at odds with public sentiment, Ilka Beekhuis resigned from the Southern District Health Board yesterday over her stance on the Covid-19 vaccine.

Her standing as a board member, already on a slippery slope due to her public opposition to mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations, toppled beyond salvation after she lobbied supermarket firm Countdown not to introduce mandatory vaccinations for staff.

Her email to Countdown, made public by RNZ, said that as "a publicly-elected official of the Southern DHB" a vaccine mandate was "abhorrent."

"It’s completely amoral, unethical, and medically unnecessary," she wrote.

The email emerged just days after Ms Beekhuis was the sole board member to vote against a resolution to congratulate staff for giving first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to more than 90% of people in Otago and Southland, and endorsing efforts to vaccinate the remainder.

SDHB board chairman Pete Hodgson became aware of Ms Beekhuis’ email to Countdown on Monday and she apologised to him for linking her personal views to the SDHB.

However, when full details of the story emerged it was clear Ms Beekhuis’ position on the board was untenable.

"Her decision to resign is the correct call to make," Mr Hodgson said.

"These are challenging times and as a health board it is important that we are able to show leadership and teamwork in pursuing the most important tool we have available to us to protect our communities against Covid."

Mr Hodgson said he and Ms Beekhuis had had a number of discussions before her resignation. He was not aware of her having sent similar emails to her Countdown one to other organisations.

Ms Beekhuis did not respond directly to questions yesterday, but said in a statement the decision to resign from the board was hers, and pointedly did not make any public effort to resile from the comments in her email.

"I share many of the views of the health board, however not all, and have recently not been able to reconcile these positions." she said.

"I would also like to thank my fellow board members and wish them every success in their work to improve the health system for the community."

Ms Beekhuis’s decision to resign made things easier for Health Minister Andrew Little, who thereby avoided having to decide whether her opposition to vaccine mandates was incompatible with her being on the SDHB.

"In view of her most recent actions, I believe this resignation is appropriate.

"I do not expect her to be replaced, given the reforms we are currently implementing," Mr Little said yesterday.

University of Otago public law professor Andrew Geddis said Ms Beekhuis had undoubtedly breached the SDHB’s code of conduct.

It was trickier to show that Ms Beekhuis had failed in her duties as a board member and could be sacked, as Mr Little had the power to do, Prof Geddis said.

"She’s not saying ‘don’t get vaxed’ — that would clearly be inconsistent with the SDHB’s role and so ‘inconsistent with her duties’.

"Rather, she’s saying ‘private companies shouldn’t require their employees to be vaxed’, and is this something that the SDHB even has a line on?"

While Ms Beekhuis had some supporters, most comments on stories on ODT social media sites during the past month have strongly criticised her position on vaccination.

Ms Beekhuis, originally from Canada, moved to New Zealand in 2007.

A founding board member of the Southern Community Health Council, she had previously worked as a grant manager for a large teaching hospital.

In 2017, her daughter was diagnosed with a rare tumour, and Ms Beekhuis said during the SDHB election campaign that it was her experience of the health system as the mother of a patient which had inspired her to stand.

Yesterday, some board members said resignation had been the right decision, while others expressed sadness at Ms Beekhuis’ exit.

Board deputy chairman Peter Crampton said he respected Ms Beekhuis’ decision to resign and he thought it was the correct decision.

"Her anti-vaccination advocacy, in my view, is incompatible with her governance role on the board of the Southern District Health Board."

Lyndell Kelly said she had good points aside from her vaccination stance, and she was sorry the board would lose those.

However, she thought Ms Beekhuis had done the right thing by resigning.

"The pressure on people standing against vaccination will increase and become very uncomfortable."

Terry King said he was saddened to hear about the resignation and he thought she had been an outstanding colleague.

John Chambers said he was very sad to lose Ms Beekhuis, but did not want to comment further.

Kaye Crowther also declined to comment.

Jean O’Callaghan, Tuari Potiki, Lesley Soper and Moana Theodore were unable to be reached for comment yesterday.


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