Exit stage left

By: Daniel Hutchinson

Daniel Hutchinson
From The Hutch

We are fed so much spin, so often that it’s hard to untangle sometimes.

Take the ‘resignation’ of Dr Ashley Bloomfield this week – Director General of Health and chief executive of the Ministry of Health.

The country’s most lovable nerd was praised and patted on the back for his role in saving thousands of lives.

It’s ironic really that he will likely be best-known for his role in managing the country’s response to a pandemic, when his professional area of expertise is non-communicable diseases.

As a chief executive though, he has somehow managed to tread a line between politics and policy and emerged out the other side with his mana largely intact. If success is measured in the number of T-shirts with your face on it, he is certainly New Zealand’s most accomplished civil servant.

If it’s measured by the availability of PPE, mixed messages about mask wearing early on and the late arrival of RAT tests, then it’s a mixed bag.

Nevertheless, he has stepped up to the mark – especially in the absence of a reliable Minister of Health early on – and has provided the calm reassurance and reasoning that the population needed.

The reason given for his departure is “stress”, which is quite plausible. And now, apparently is a great time to leave.

The best of times?

Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes said Bloomfield wanted to stay on until the country had a good hold on the virus, and that time was now.

That’s a little less plausible unless he means it in a Charles Dickens sort of way: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

While it’s great to see the country is clearly past the peak of Omicron, and the hospital system hasn’t crashed, death rates have never been higher – and death rates have always been what we have been told to measure success on during this pandemic.

It’s probably a touch early to celebrate and bow out to a round of applause.

However, it’s a moot point really because the Government pretty much replaced Bloomfield late last year when it announced the chief executives of the new Health New Zealand and Māori Health Authority.

This new centralised system of health replaces the 20 district health boards that currently manage hospitals and other health services around the country.

Changing the guard

It is due to take control on July 1 this year. It’s not clear if Bloomfield applied for the new role  but the top jobs went to New Zealand-born Samoan Margie Apa, current chief executive of Counties Manukau Health, who will become the chief executive of Health NZ; while Riana Manuel, a former nurse, is head honcho at the Māori Health Authority.

Like everyone else, I’m not sure of all the details, but the reforms will substantially reduce Bloomfield’s role and responsibility.

It also doesn’t leave any room for DHB elections this year, which is probably not going to cause too much anxiety given voter turnout hovers around 40 per cent for these.

It will cause a fair bit of angst for the 19 DHB chief executives looking for new jobs and 204 board members who will be exiting their publicly-elected roles early.

Out with the old

Bloomfield isn’t the only one leaving from the Ministry of Health’s executive leadership with director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay, and public health deputy director Dr Niki Stefanogiannis also packing their bags.

Whether the health reforms deliver a healthier population remains to be seen. Ideally, we would have been further away from the carnage of Covid-19 before revamping the entire health system.

But with short, three-year terms, the Government needs to hurry things along or risk running out of time and the mandate to make radical change.

Let’s hope it’s not a case of taking your eye off the game for just a second too long like the Picton railway worker who forgot to put the brakes on the remote control locomotive last September.

The results of the investigation were released by KiwiRail this week, with footage showing the worker walked away from the controls to make a phone call, before setting the brakes. The locomotive and wagon travelled 139 metres before dropping off the end of the wharf and into Picton Harbour.

Now, that’s a way to make an exit.