When the face doesn't fit

Ilka Beekhuis
Ilka Beekhuis
Ilka Beekhuis surprised many people, including herself, when she was elected to the Southern District Health Board.

Her winning one of four seats available saw her best some seasoned health administrators and well-credentialed clinicians who were in the 17-candidate field, and offered hope a fresh face with new ideas would be an asset to the re-established board.

However, two years on, her face no longer fits around the board table after the publicity surrounding her adherence to stale old ideas questioning the health benefits of vaccination and the wisdom of mandatory injections for front-line workers.

The first public hint that Ms Beekhuis was out of step with her SDHB colleagues came a month ago when the Otago Daily Times asked all board members — as it has all local councillors — about their Covid-19 vaccination status.

As civic leaders and people who set an example to their community this was a fair question to ask, especially as at the time New Zealand was setting itself the target of having at least 90% of people vaccinated against Covid-19.

Given the science affirming the efficacy of vaccination is well accepted by mainstream medicine and the world is in the midst of the largest public health crisis in decades — one which vaccination will play a key part in allaying — this should have been a no-brainer.

However, Ms Beekhuis’ vacillation when asked the question, and her subsequent questioning of mandatory vaccination for health and disability clinicians who deal directly with vulnerable patients, were alarming.

Her actions ran the risk of undermining the determined and effective public health effort which dedicated clinicians across Otago and Southland have poured their hearts into to protect southern communities, a gross dereliction of her duties as a health board member.

Things got worse a fortnight ago when Ms Beekhuis, preposterously, voted against an SDHB resolution praising the efforts of its clinicians in the fight against Covid-19.

Beforehand, Ms Beekhuis had said that she was not anti-vaccination but opposed to mandatory vaccination.

Mandates are troubling to many people and there is a reasonable argument against them, although there is an equally as compelling greater good argument in their favour in this context, to fight a disease which has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.

There was nothing in the board’s resolution — to thank staff and reiterate its determination to vaccinate as many people as possible — which mentioned or endorsed mandates, and Ms Beekhuis could and should have been able to vote for it in good conscience.

Her statement that she voted against because ‘‘I don’t feel comfortable supporting the motion because of the unknowns surrounding vaccine reaction’’, would have made her already uneasy colleagues openly question her fitness to serve on a health board.

However, the revelation last week that she had lobbied Countdown supermarkets to not implement mandatory vaccination of its staff, and specifically done so by referencing her membership of the SDHB, was clearly the final straw.

It was bad enough that a health board member should oppose widely accepted public health measures, but her wording placed Ms Beekhuis’ no doubt horrified fellow board members in the invidious position of seemingly endorsing her views due to the principle of collective responsibility.

Ms Beekhuis said her resignation on Thursday was her own choice, although it was no doubt a course she had been strongly advised to take. It was the correct thing to do, but there is a slight tinge of regret about her departure.

Ms Beekhuis stood for election after making a notable contribution on the southern region’s community health council, and campaigned promising to be a voice of patients.

While the SDHB often expresses its concerns for its patients, their voices are not always heard at the top table so had Ms Beekhuis made good on that promise she could and should have made a valuable contribution to improving healthcare in the south.

Instead, she departs in odium, hopefully having not undermined the fight against Covid-19 in the process.