Dr Joe Williams, former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands and a much-respected GP, has died after contracting Covid-19 in Auckland.
The widely-respected medical professional died in Auckland City Hospital last night.
He becomes the 24th person in New Zealand to die from Covid-19 and the second in less than 24 hours related to the current Auckland cluster.
The Ministry of Health said Williams was a "widely regarded member of health services in both New Zealand and the Cook Islands".
Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said Williams was a well-known politician, physician and author.
"Dr Williams was seen as a leading figure in the Cook Islands medical community and he will be sadly missed," he said.
Williams was admitted to Auckland City Hospital on August 13.
"Our thoughts are with his family and community at this time of loss and grief.
"Today's sad news again reinforces the importance of our shared vigilance against Covid-19, the very serious consequences the virus can carry with it, and the measures we all need to take to stop the spread, break any chain of transmission and prevent deaths."
The Pasifika Medical Association Group had announced his death earlier this morning.
Williams, 85, was admitted to hospital after he became sick when it is thought he might have come in close contact to someone connected to the initial Auckland cluster. His Mt Wellington practice is not far from the Americold coolstore.
Williams served as the Cook Islands Prime Minister for four months in 1999. He earlier served as the country's Health Minister.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson paid tribute to Williams, describing him as "such an influential leader in the Cook Island community, and in the health sector in general".
"Deeply respected, my thoughts and aroha are with his family, friends and community," Robertson said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said Williams had made a "serious mark" on the communities he served.
"He will be greatly missed in both New Zealand and the Cook Islands."
Peters described Williams as a "dedicated and passionate man".
"He was an enduring example of a Cook Islander who came to New Zealand for education, and then made a real difference in his chosen career," he said.
"His family and the people of the Cook Islands should be proud of all that he achieved."
Williams had been a candidate for NZ First at the 2005 election.
Cooks Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna paid tribute to his predecessor as a "pioneer on many fronts and a man way beyond his time".
"He was one of our early breed of home-grown medical officers of health.
"As well as being in general practice and serving the people of our country for many years he went into politics in 1968 when he was elected as an MP for Aitutaki. He served as Minister of Health and Education in the 1970s.
"In 1999 he became the country's fifth Prime Minister and also held the Minister
of Foreign Affairs portfolio."
Puna said a national memorial service would be organised for Williams once his funeral
arrangements were confirmed.
Second death linked to Auckland cluster in less than 24 hours
Williams' death last night came just hours after the first death linked to the Auckland Covid-19 cluster was announced late yesterday afternoon.
An Americold worker in his 50s died at Middlemore Hospital after battling the virus.
The man, a father of four, was the first Covid-19 death from the Auckland cluster that has infected 152 people.
Bloomfield had told yesterday's 1pm briefing that six Covid patients were in hospital - one in Auckland City, one in Middlemore, two in North Shore, and two in Waikato.
Four people were on a ward, and two were in ICU – one each in Middlemore and Waikato hospitals.
Williams served his country, the Cook Islands, his community in New Zealand and his many patients for more than 60 years.
He spent 25 years in the Cook Islands and served as Minister of Health and Education in 1974 to 1978, Minister of Health, Tourism, Transport and State-Owned Enterprises from 1994 to 1996 and Prime Minister in 1999.
"We have been privileged to serve him as our patron and thank Mrs Jill Williams and family for sharing him with us and the community," the Pasifika Medical Association Group said in a media release confirming his death today.
"His love, generosity and kindness has touched so many families, friends and colleagues. He has left us all with the gifts of his journey, and for that we are forever grateful," said Dr Kiki Maoate ONZM - Williams' nephew and president of the Pasifika Medical Association.
Williams' work in New Zealand, as a general practitioner and health professional, resulted in him being recognised with a Queen's Service Order appointment after more than 50 years of service.
He had also worked with the World Health Organisation and was a strong health advocate within the Pasifika community in New Zealand.
Williams held many senior roles in the health sector in New Zealand, served on many advisory committees and led the establishment of many organisations including the Cook Islands Health Network.
He established Mt Wellington Integrated Family Health Care Clinic which served over 15,000 patients who travelled from all over New Zealand to see him and continued to practice medicine up until his recent short illness.