Todd Muller calls for David Clark to be sacked over new COVID-19 cases at 'clumsy, slack' border

coronavirus 17/06/2020

National's Todd Muller is calling for "clumsy and incompetent" Health Minister Dr David Clark to be sacked after a lack of proper checks meant two individuals with COVID-19 were let out of managed isolation.

After 24 days of zero cases of the respiratory illness being recorded in New Zealand, two new cases were reported on Tuesday. It emerged that the two women arrived in the country from the United Kingdom earlier this month, but were let out of managed isolation in Auckland last week upon compassionate grounds to attend a funeral in Wellington.

A full safety plan was devised to mitigate risks to the public and the pair drove alone in a private vehicle to the capital without meeting anyone along the way. They only had close contact with one family member once they arrived. On Monday, both tested positive for COVID-19 at a Wellington assessment centre.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told media on Tuesday that neither of the women were tested for the virus before leaving, something that usually occurs. One had mild symptoms but she has put that down to a pre-existing condition. Questions have been raised about what the women were asked about how they felt before leaving.

Both the Health Minister and Prime Minister have since expressed their disappointment.

"Compassionate exemptions should be rare and rigorous and it appears that this case did not include the checks that we expected to be happening. That’s not acceptable," Dr Clark said.

He is looking into what happened.

Dr Clark announced on Tuesday afternoon that compassionate grounds have now been suspended, while Dr Bloomfield said anyone in the future who does get an exemption must also now receive a negative test before leaving isolation. 

National's leader appeared on The AM Show on Wednesday morning and when asked what his Government would be doing differently at the border, he said Dr Clark must go. 

"For a start, the Minister of Health wouldn't have a job today. New Zealand wakes up this morning rightly angry and furious quite frankly," he said.

"We have put, collectively, so much effort into ensuring that we were COVID free and the idea that we have clumsy and slack border approaches overseen by a minister who just has seemed to drop the ball on anything he touches. I am very disappointed."

He mentioned National's international students policy, which would allow students to come here if they had a health check prior to departure from their country of origin, a test when they arrived in New Zealand, and finally another test when leaving quarantine. 

"All of that is predicated on officials being able to do their job properly and being audited."

Host Duncan Garner asked Muller if that meant if an official stuffed up while he was Prime Minister, would the minister in charge be fired.

"No, what I am saying is there's a track record here with this minister, where he just simply doesn't grip up things that require total focus. This isn't just your average, run of the mill Government issue of the day. We have locked down a country, we are losing 40,000 jobs a month, the impact on families in this country is extraordinary and the actual pain hasn't really been felt yet," Muller said.

Dr Clark has previously come under fire for going cycling at a mountain bike track and a trip to the beach during lockdown. If New Zealand hadn't been in the middle of a pandemic, Ardern said he would have lost the Health portfolio. Instead, he lost his associate finance role and was demoted in Cabinet rankings. The Health Minister later admitted his actions were idiotic.

As the Director-General is in charge of the Ministry of Health, Garner asked Muller why he wasn't coming under the National leader's fire. 

"He runs the ministry but I have a particular focus on David Clark," he said.

Garner said the National leader was playing politics for opposition's sake. Muller disagreed. 

"It's not politics for opposition's sake. I don't stand up every day having a shout at every passing car. But when it is important and when New Zealanders' lives and livelihoods are at stake then I have an absolute expectation of exemplary performance and if the ball is dropped then there needs to be accountability."

"Bloomfield is, of course, ultimately accountable for driving this through and I am sure he will be having significant conversations with the people who work for him and he will, no doubt, be extremely disappointed and would need it to be fixed."

Speaking to The AM Show later on Wednesday morning, Dr Clark said he hasn't offered his resignation to the Prime Minister, but said what happened did not meet his expectations. He wants a "thorough investigation" into what happened. 

"I expected that people would be tested before they left a facility like this. I have suspended compassionate exemptions immediately pending confidence the system is working as it should.

"Clearly it did not in this case. We have got a team of five million who should reasonably expect that they would have a COVID-free situation, that every measure would be taken to ensure that people leaving facilities were safe to do so."

Dr Clark has asked for details about every case of compassionate leave and the checks and tests used. 

"The testing around people leaving is something that clearly was not in place as I thought it was. We were told that people would be tested on day three and day 12 from the start of alert level 1. Clearly, that did not happen."

He said that assurance came from the Ministry of Health via the Director-General. Dr Bloomfield said on Tuesday that as New Zealand went to level 1 last week, focus was placed on the day 12 tests, with the day 3 tests happening from this week. The two women left last Friday and had been in isolation for about five days. 

Dr Clark said Dr Bloomfield is "sorry" and working out how this doesn't happen again. 

"I rang Dr Bloomfield yesterday and gave a very clear message that these exemptions would not be carrying on until I had confidence in the system. They will be suspended. That's a very clear message. I said the system has failed us here." 

He won't go on a "witch hunt" and retains confidence in Dr Bloomfield.