Minister reflects on journey a month into her new job

	Dr Ayesha Verrall, Minister for Seniors, Minister for Food Safety, Associate Minister of Health...
Dr Ayesha Verrall, Minister for Seniors, Minister for Food Safety, Associate Minister of Health and Associate Minister of Research, Science and Innovation. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
It has been a month since University of Otago-educated infectious disease specialist Dr Ayesha Verrall became a member of Parliament and was sworn into the Labour Government’s new Cabinet, taking the portfolios of Minister for Seniors, Minister for Food Safety, Associate Minister of Health and Associate Minister of Research, Science and Innovation. Te Anau writer Alina Suchanski talks to her about the first weeks in her new job and the challenges it brings.

For Ayesha Verrall, switching from being a medical practitioner and researcher to entering parliamentary politics was a spur of the moment decision made around Anzac Day this year.

She had governance experience as deputy chairwoman of the Capital and Coast District Health Board, and had been elected to that board on a Labour Party ticket; however, it was her involvement as a leading epidemiologist in New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic which led to her decision to get involved in parliamentary politics.

During the nationwide lockdown, Dr Verrall was called on to conduct a review of this country’s contact tracing systems.

This put her in the public eye nationally, and a friend suggested she should consider running for Parliament.

"I did the contact tracing report [in April], which attracted a lot of media attention, but I thought there was still more work to be done. I had been a member of the Labour Party for many years and someone suggested that I should stand for Parliament, so I did."

Even though there had been a lot of media hype about her rise up the Labour Party rankings (she was No17 on the party list), Dr Verrall said it was a surprise to hear she was going to become a minister.

"I quickly started to think about how I was going to fulfil the expectations the prime minister has put on me and I’m going to take my responsibilities very seriously."

Her first week on the job was "very good" and she enjoyed having her first meetings with officials from the agencies she was responsible for.

In her role as Minister for Seniors, Dr Verrall named her priorities as "working on digital inclusion, housing, work on the dementia action plan and getting an aged care commissioner to act as a watchdog to protect people who might be vulnerable".

Asked how the pandemic affected her job, she said although she was "not formally responsible for Covid, overall the changes we are grappling with are the economic recovery and getting over Covid".

This was where her expertise in infectious diseases would be useful.

Born in Invercargill and raised in Te Anau by her Maldivian mother and Kiwi father, Dr Verrall was named after her maternal grandmother, whom she never met — she died young, long before Ayesha was born. The family moved to the Maldives for two years when Dr Verrall was 3 years old, and later she travelled there regularly with her parents and younger sister Saeeda.

At the Fiordland College Prom in 1997 are the Verrall family; (from left) Bill, Lathee, Ayesha...
At the Fiordland College Prom in 1997 are the Verrall family; (from left) Bill, Lathee, Ayesha and Saeeda.

Back in New Zealand, she started her education at Te Anau Primary School and attended Fiordland College.

It was seeing the toll disease had taken on her mother’s family in the Maldives that motivated young Ayesha to study medicine.

She completed her bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery at the University of Otago in 2004. As part of her studies, she did practical clinical work at the Indira Ghandi Memorial Hospital in Male, the main island of the Maldives.

Later, she trained in tropical medicine, bioethics and international health in the United Kingdom, Singapore and Peru, obtaining a master’s from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the University of Alabama through the Gorgas Institute in Lima, Peru.

When she returned to New Zealand, she completed her PhD in tuberculosis epidemiology at the University of Otago in 2018.

Dr Verrall’s parents say she was a busy girl and excelled in everything she did. She was athletics champion, played hockey and was in the college road race and cross-country teams. At Fiordland College she was dux, played saxophone in the school band and was on the debating team.

When she was president of the Otago University Students’ Association in 2001, she lobbied for interest-free student loans, and in 2003 she led the formation of the New Zealand Medical Student Journal.

Her Maldivian family were no strangers to politics and had held some high-ranking positions in the government there.

Her uncle, Hussain Ahmed Maniku, was an atoll chief working in the local government. Her cousin, Mohamed Nasheed, was jailed and tortured for his fight for democracy, but later became the fourth President of the Maldives from 2008-12. He was the first democratically elected president of the nation and one of the founders of the Maldivian Democratic Party.

Asked who inspired her to become the person she is, Dr Verrall pointed to her parents and her Te Anau upbringing.

Her father Bill is a retired principal of Fiordland College, where her mother Lathee was an English teacher.

"My parents were really strong models for being involved with the community," she said.

"One way or another, they never stopped working. They were always concerned about the community and students."

She hoped she would always have "good Te Anau manners" — being part of the community, recognising and acknowledging people and being interested in others’ wellbeing.

Looking back at her time growing up in Te Anau, what she cherished most was the time with her family, a lot of it being in the outdoors.

"That’s what taught me resilience and shaped my character," she said.

For the young people of Te Anau or any other small place in the country her message was, "Don’t ever let anyone tell you that coming from a small place you are not good enough. You are. My education at Fiordland College and Otago University was first-class."

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