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One breach of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations might be forgivable, but in taking his family 20km away from their bubble for a trip to – ironically, Doctor’s Point – Dr Clark signed his political death warrant.
He can no longer credibly stand in front of the New Zealand public and urge them to respect lockdown regulations he himself has breached, no matter with what good intentions.
Both he and Ms Ardern have warned the public in no uncertain terms that to breach the lockdown regulations is to place other people’s lives at risk.
For Dr Clark to then venture away from his local neighbourhood — even if some leisure time with his family was richly deserved — undermines the credibility of the public health messaging the whole of Government effort to combat Covid-19
is striving to convey.
Demotion to the bottom rank of Cabinet and being stripped of his associate finance role — one which as a former Treasury official Dr Clark was personally and professionally attached to — is a serious punishment, but it does not fit the misdeed.
Dr Clark’s transgressions, minor though they might seem in the grand scheme of things, were directly related to his health portfolio responsibilities; that is the role he should properly forfeit.
Ms Ardern makes the point that New Zealand is caught up in a pandemic, Dr Clark has been an integral part in planning and operational management of the Government response, and he cannot be spared from those duties.
This is a reasonable argument, but misses the impact of
Dr Clark’s actions.
In his ill-judged excursions he has sapped all credibility from his pronouncements and undermined his authority.
New Zealanders have been asked to make sacrifices which, no matter how unthinkingly, the Minister of Health does not seem willing to make himself.
Highly inconvenient though it will be to bring in a new person and get them up to speed in the massive complexities unleashed by Covid-19, better that than to have a health workforce and a wider population seeing a health minister saying one thing and doing another.
Dr Clark’s ruthless self-assessment that he has behaved like an idiot is spot on.
Even though it is out of character for someone who is usually deliberative and careful in his decision-making process, his loose behaviour in these instances is not befitting a person making life-and-death calls about New Zealand’s health services in a time of crisis.
In general terms Dr Clark has been a responsible, thoughtful minister who has been dedicated to improving a health system which faced multiple issues even before Covid-19 loomed large.
He has overseen commendable initiatives in mental health and authorised a substantial capital expenditure programme — including, most pertinently for his electorate, the rebuilding of Dunedin Hospital.
Health is a massive and difficult portfolio, one which until now Dr Clark has handled with competency.
In normal circumstances, a regrettable and understandable lapse from his usual high standards would be excusable, but these are not normal circumstances.
One excursion might be explainable; there has been widespread confusion and mixed messages about how far people can travel for recreational purposes under Level 4 restrictions.
But more than one, by a minister who of all ministers should have been aware of the restrictions, has created an enormous sideshow where there did not need to be one.
Both Dr Clark and Ms Ardern need, to use one of the Prime Minister’s expressions, to have laser-like focus on combatting Covid-19.
This is a massive, unnecessary and entirely preventable distraction from that task — almost half of the Prime Minister’s briefing yesterday was taken up with questions concerning Dr Clark rather than matters of state.
Difficult though Covid-19 might be to manage with a newly installed health minister in charge, it would also be a massive challenge for a distracted incumbent, one whose time may well be limited in the role going by the Prime Minister’s comment that it took an ongoing national crisis for her not to fire him.