‘Inept’: Host confronts Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was repeatedly grilled this morning over an extraordinary blunder her government committed in its handling of the coronavirus, and her beleaguered health minister's clumsy attempt to shift the blame.
There are now 22 active cases of the virus in New Zealand, all of which are contained in border quarantine facilities. There is no evidence of community transmission.
But the country's much-vaunted pandemic response hit an embarrassing bump last week as it emerged that more than a thousand people had been allowed to leave quarantine without being tested, even though a negative test result was supposed to be a prerequisite for their release.
The mandatory testing policy was meant to be in place from June 9 onwards. The government failed to actually implement it until June 16.
During the intervening week, 2159 people left quarantine, and almost 1300 of them had not been tested.
The majority of those people have since been tracked down and tested, but hundreds have defied the government's attempts to get in touch with them.
Speaking to reporters last week, Health Minister David Clark attempted to shift the blame for the mistake squarely onto the shoulders of New Zealand's Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield.
"The Director-General has accepted that the protocol wasn't being followed. He has accepted responsibility for that and has set about putting it right," Dr Clark said on camera.
Standing right behind him, looking thoroughly dejected, was Dr Bloomfield.
MediaWorks political editor Tova O'Brien called the footage "brutal". The New Zealand Herald accused Dr Clark of throwing Dr Bloomfield "under the bus". And commentators from both sides of New Zealand's political spectrum blasted the health minister.
"I thought the behaviour of David Clark in relation to Ashley Bloomfield was just shameful, absolutely shameful," Chris Trotter, who leans to the political left, told The AM Show.
"I'm sorry Jacinda, but if you let that stand for the next 24 hours, then it's going to come back on you. Because a person like that should not be in his job."
"Add to the list of failures of leadership (by Ms Ardern)," said Trotter's fellow guest, the right-leaning commentator Trish Sherson.
"You can have all the good, fluffy stuff you want, but as a leader there are two important things. One is knowing when to get people off the bus when they are not performing, not throwing them under the bus.
"The other one is letting your team be good enough to step up around you and take their place. Neither of those things Jacinda Ardern is able to do."
That controversy formed the backdrop for Ms Ardern as she did the media rounds this morning, appearing on both The AM Show and Newstalk ZB radio.
The two interviews covered similar ground, but we'll deal with them one at a time.
Newstalk host Mike Hosking introduced the Prime Minister to his listeners with the scathing assessment of a recent report into New Zealand's quarantine facilities.
"Of course it hasn't been up to scratch. The system's under extreme stress, demand was outgrowing supply, there needed to be better oversight of passengers as they were transferred, and better day three and day 12 testing. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is with us. A very good morning to you," Hosking said.
Ms Ardern immediately took issue with his characterisation of the situation.
"You forgot that (the system) was also doing what it needed to do there, Mike," she said, dispensing with any greeting.
"Apart from the time that it wasn't doing what it was needing to do," he shot back.
"Which has been addressed, Mike. And the whole point that we put the report in place was to make sure that we were aware of any other underlying issues, and that we tighten those up. And we are," said Ms Ardern.
"(Do) you accept them as your failings though?" Hosking asked.
"Mike, I'm going to take one quick step back here for a little bit of global context," the Prime Minister said.
"There is no rule book on any of what we are doing. In fact New Zealand, by the mere fact that we have quarantine, puts us amongst only a handful of countries in the world. The fact that we mandate testing in those facilities makes us the most stringent, in the world, when it comes to our border.
"Yes, as we have moved through, we have changed and added on extra requirements to keep tightening those up. Keep in mind though, we have had a 73 per cent increase, relative to April, on the number of people coming in. Around the world, we now have 10 million cases and half a million deaths. In South Asia, this pandemic isn't set to peak until July.
"It is growing, not slowing. It is going to continue to be an issue that happens around us, and New Zealand, in amongst all of that, is doing really well."
With that rather testy exchange out of the way, Hosking asked Ms Ardern to address the cringeworthy footage of Dr Clark and Dr Bloomfield.
"Did you look at the pictures last week of Ashley Bloomfield when your Minister of Heath threw him under the bus so publicly?" he asked.
"I did. I did see that interview, but I also know the full transcript of what happened in the interview, and the elements that were not included, included Dr Clark talking about what an exceptional public servant Ashley was," said Ms Ardern.
"What did you see in Ashley's face?" Hosking followed up.
"Well, the same that I've seen across people who are working in health generally. You know, a group of people who have worked exceptionally hard for a number of months and that we do have to give some respite to. They have been working incredibly hard.
"We have been criticised for not directly blaming any individual person, because this has been a failure of our system and we have taken collective responsibility for that."
"Did he deserve what we got from the individual who gave it to him, given the individual's previous actions, behaviour and manner?" said Hosking.
That was largely a reference to the fact that Dr Clark violated his own government's coronavirus lockdown back in April, driving his family to a beach 20 kilometres away from his home.
Ms Ardern reacted by demoting him to the bottom of the Cabinet hierarchy.
"Under normal conditions I would sack the Minister for Health. What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses," she said at the time.
But she refrained from firing Dr Clark, citing the disruption it would cause in the health portfolio in the middle of the pandemic.
Back to this morning. Ms Ardern responded to Hosking by brushing off Dr Clark's comment.
"What Dr Clark said was no different to what Dr Bloomfield said only 48 hours before," she said.
"No one here is placing blame at any individual's feet for something that was a systems failure, and that we are all working really well collectively together to resolve."
"You don't think it was galling that the most inept minister going was the one handing out the criticism?" asked Hosking.
"Again, you'll see that I have kind of disputed the framing that you've put around this whole thing, Mike," Ms Ardern quipped.
"None of us are placing blame on individuals here, because that wouldn't be right. We have had a system failure, we have worked hard to fix it. The report yesterday shows the efforts that have been made.
"Both Dr Bloomfield and Dr Clark have worked together exceptionally well. I sit in meetings with these individuals frequently. I know the collaborative, collegial working relationship that they have. And those two individuals are part of a bigger team who have managed to get New Zealand in an enviable position.
"We are doing better than most of the world right now, and it is because, in no small part, of the work they are doing alongside New Zealanders."
During her appearance on The AM Show, Ms Ardern faced an equally hostile line of questioning, this time from host Duncan Garner.
"Does David Clark have any responsibility for the bungles?" Garner asked her.
"All I would acknowledge there, Duncan, is he was saying exactly the same thing as what the Director-General himself said 48 hours prior," she said.
"However, we have been very clear here, this is actually not an issue that lays at the feet of any one individual. We all have to take some accountability for this. There's been a systems failure, it's been our job to fix it, and we have."
"That's the right answer. So why didn't (Dr Clark) say that?" Garner pressed.
"Having seen some of the rest of what he said in that interview, there was a huge amount of acknowledgment for the role that the Director-General has played in all of this. And when I say all of this, (I mean) our success as a nation. He is an exceptional individual," said the Prime Minister.
"In my view, it was certainly not the intention to leave that impression that some have taken from that interview."
Garner pressed her for specifics on how many people were allowed to leave quarantine without being tested.
"OK, so - please, if you'll forgive me for going off the top of my head. So we had roughly 2100 individuals who completed quarantine, completed a health check, were well. Over half of those have been tested, and have tested negative. There are another portion, from memory about 350, that are waiting on their tests. There are then another group who have been contacted multiple times, and are not responding or engaging," Ms Ardern said.
"How many? Is it more than a hundred?" Garner asked.
"Yes it is," she confirmed.
"But Duncan, keep in mind, to the Ministry of Health, they are not considered of concern, because they completed their quarantine, they completed a health check, and they were well. So the idea that they are causing issues now in our community, the chances of that are very, very low."
Finally, Garner asked whether New Zealand would be forced to consider increasing its coronavirus alert level again, given its recent rise from zero cases to almost two dozen.
"When do we look at going back to alert levels two, three, four? When does the counter click over into concern, to you? We have 20 cases now; Ashley Bloomfield said a couple of months ago 20 cases would probably be a concern," he said.
"Duncan ahh, no, you would have heard Dr Bloomfield and myself say that we haven't put a number on it, because 20 cases at the border is very different to 20 cases outside of the border," Ms Ardern shot back.
"So this is a good opportunity for me, if I may, to just reflect on the fact that in the last 13 days we've had 80,000 tests. That represents about 20 per cent of the testing we have done this entire time. Eighty thousand tests. And all of our cases have been at the border - so managed, in facilities, in isolation. Managed.
"We do not have cases in our community. And I want to really highlight that, because unfortunately, some of the reporting has meant people haven't been left with that impression. Those 80,000 tests have actually demonstrated that we're catching the virus at the border, as we intended, through our quarantine system."
New Zealand recorded two new cases of the virus today. Both patients had recently returned from overseas.
Originally published as 'Inept': Host confronts Jacinda Ardern