A year after he finished as health boss, Sir Ashley Bloomfield opens up on what he thinks we got right and wrong with Covid, Mike Hosking and media, leadership, and family. He talks to Shayne Currie over lunch.
By his own estimate, Sir Ashley Bloomfield has posed for a selfie thousands of times. He’s still readily recognised – and stopped – in the street.
“The comment I would like to make,” he says, with such a striking tone and familiarity that I instantly picture him at the Beehive Theatrette podium, “is of the many thousands of people who have come up to me – and it’s an everyday thing – only one has been slightly unpleasant.”
What on earth happened, I ask him over lunch.
“The comment was, ‘Are you Ashley Bloomfield? Well, I hope you have a terrible day because you’re a terrible man.’”
If you’ve had the misfortune of tumbling into the cesspit of social media comments – and indeed, even some of the commentary in mainstream media – you’d regard this a lightweight criticism compared to the vitriol from the keyboard warriors.
Every single person, apart from that one, has been civil and thankful in the real world, says Bloomfield, the former director-general of health who led New Zealand’s charge against Covid.
“I know there are people out there that personally don’t like me or think I was acting in a political way. I was bothered by some of what my family got to see but I never took it personally. I didn’t fear for my safety.”
It’s just over a year since Bloomfield, 57, quit as health boss.
The relief of vacating the role was virtually instant, he says. Sleep patterns have returned. His wife Libby says he looks five years younger.
She and the couple’s three young adult children now have their husband and father back. Bloomfield says he has brain space back.
“You can never switch off,” he says of the role, for which he fronted most of the 1pm Covid press conferences, usually alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. His face launched a thousand social media memes, adorned tea towels and, yes, features in many New Zealanders’ mobile phone camera rolls.
“The analogy I use is the Covid pandemic was like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” says Bloomfield.
“But we didn’t have the picture on the front of the box. We had to assemble this puzzle bit by bit as new information came in. And every now and then we’d realise we had pieces in the wrong place, and we had to swap out.
“I was carrying that puzzle in my head the whole time and every single little bit of it and the connections between it.
“And as soon as I did finish up, I realised I don’t need to have that in my head anymore. It felt like I had my brain back to do other things.”
There is a common theory among critics that the Government became captured by Bloomfield and his team at the Ministry of Health, to the extent that immediate health considerations – preventing deaths – ruled out all other factors in our Covid response, including the impact on businesses, the economy, family relationships, workers’ lives and livelihoods and longer-term health impacts such as mental health and wellbeing.
“Our response was by no means perfect,” says Bloomfield, “but comparatively it is one of the best in the world.”
He says he has no overall regrets – it’s a question he’s asked a lot. Two weeks ago he was in front of the Royal Commission of Inquiry for the first time.
“I don’t have regrets because … what’s the big picture here?
“What are the key things we are trying to achieve – protecting people, our vulnerable groups, protecting our healthcare system, stopping the virus getting into the Pacific.
“And of course, it’s debatable but also, I think we did our best to protect New Zealand’s economy at a time of huge uncertainty. It’s the adage – we live life forwards, but we only understand it looking backwards.”
No regrets then about the length of time we were in lockdown or the time it took for the elimination strategy to be lifted: “I think we got it about right. By the time Omicron came to New Zealand in early 2022, only last year, we were down to five cases of Delta. So we had essentially achieved what we set out to achieve, which was to eliminate that outbreak.”
Nor regrets on the mandates, which led to some people losing their jobs: “No one wanted that to happen, but the benefits and risks and harms of any decision are always weighed up carefully. We certainly weighed them up in our advice and I know Cabinet and the Government as decision makers weighed them up incredibly carefully every time they consider them.”
Perhaps a small regret is that we weren’t more precautionary about masks earlier on.
He wants to put to bed any idea that he was alone in guiding Government.
The Prime Minister and Cabinet, he says, were never just receiving advice from the Ministry of Health. They were receiving a wide range of views across portfolios – and “even on the health side there was solicited and plenty of unsolicited advice – of course, some of it through the media”.
Businesses were not left to their own devices either, he says, citing the likes of the wage subsidies and other support for employers.
“It’s always a matter of judgment … all governments set out to make the best possible decisions based on what they know at the time.
“I’m firmly of the view that happened and that the business voice was being sought, being heard and was absolutely factored into the decisions made.
“It wasn’t just health’s got the microphone and they ain’t letting it go.”
We met on Wednesday last week, ahead of this week’s announcement that all remaining Covid restrictions were being lifted.
Mike Hosking opined on his Newstalk ZB show: “How well we had done is open to a tremendous amount of interpretation. As for saving lives, that’s guess work. You can’t put a number on things that never happened.
“The most important part of the whole Covid approach is not what happened in a condensed, intense period of time, but rather what the cost of that attitude was and is. What is the price we paid and are still paying?”
Bloomfield says even for his own part, as director general of health, “I was never acting alone”, having been surrounded by a “fantastic, essential group who were constantly advising me”.
“One of the things I had to do was make sure that, even as I got a high public profile, they still felt they were able to challenge me internally. Externally it happens through the media but there’s a Harvard Business Review article from 2019 [that says] ego is the enemy of good leadership.
“As you become more successful or have a high profile as a leader, there’s a tendency for people to kind of listen more attentively, be less likely to challenge, laugh more at your jokes, as it says in the article.
“This tickles the ego and then your leadership actually is compromised.”
So did you get an ego? I ask him.
“I’m not an ego-driven person.”
Of his celebrity fame, he says: “I didn’t pay too much attention to it”.
He remembers returning to the Ministry of Health offices after one of the Beehive press conferences. A meme was already flying on social channels.
“One of [the staff members] turned to me and she just said quite seriously, ‘we don’t get it… all we see is you up there every day being yourself’. And I said to her, ‘Tell me if that changes.’”
Bloomfield says he normally injects humour into his leadership style but he needed to keep this in check when fronting the country, for very obvious reasons.
“This was not a role where I could make light of things. I still used it in the organisation, but I needed to always come across as serious, calm, confidence building.”
Communication became such a critical component of his role that he handed other CEO responsibilities to his senior team.
He says he spent a good three hours every day preparing for the 1pm Beehive press conferences – a couple of hours with his team, another hour with the Prime Minister or that day’s host minister.
He wanted to ensure he was across as much detail as possible, to instill and maintain public trust and confidence. “Making sure we knew what all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle looked like at that point in time.”
I had heard that Bloomfield has told several audiences recently that when there was bad news to report, politicians weren’t so keen to stand alongside him at the podium.
“This is my quip I make about when there was bad news, I’d be flying solo those days.”
It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, he says. “It’s more a comment about how little slack we cut our politicians, how little space we give them to say things like, ‘I don’t know.’”
Bloomfield says he’d wake up in the middle of the night – often on a Wednesday night – reflecting on his Thursday round of media calls, including, he says, the inevitable question from Mike Hosking about when he was going to resign.
Now, he says, when he wakes up at 3am, “instead of what am I going to say to Mike at 5 to 7 this morning… I can just turn over and go back to sleep”.
I ask him who he found to be the toughest inquisitor. He cites Checkpoint’s Lisa Owen as one name.
“He may not like to hear it, but it wasn’t Mike Hosking. The way Mike works is, he’s a shock jock. He throws a comment out to get a response.
“What he doesn’t tend to do is then keep digging and coming back to you.
“It’s a bit of banter, it’s theatre.”
He recalls his last interview with Hosking, by his own estimate about the 25th time they had locked horns.
Hosking asked Bloomfield to rate their interactions out of 10.
“I said, ‘Well, Mike, I’d say 7 to 8 – you’re trying to do your job as well as you can and I’m trying to do mine and that’s what it’s about.’
“I said, ‘What about you, Mike? How would you rate them?’ His response was twofold.
“It was, ‘Well, I don’t rate your performance very highly,’ but that was part of his narrative anyway.
“But then he said, ‘Here’s the thing, you always showed up. You knew I was going to give you a hard time, but you always turned up and I respect that.’”
He says he enjoyed working with media and has stayed in touch with a handful of them.
He’s also had a cup of tea with Ardern – the first time he called her “Jacinda”, rather than Prime Minister, he says, was when he texted her after she’d left the role.
On his own knighthood, he says: “Just call me Ashley.
“I mean, I’m not big on the title. There are certain times and places where it’s appropriate to use it.”
He received a lot of messages and support when the knighthood was announced. John Key texted him, Christopher Luxon wrote him a nice letter. Chris Hipkins attended his investiture.
“I share the odd text exchange with him which is nice. I’m not telling him how to do his job or giving him advice but just more at a personal level.”
He says the level of cross-party political support he’s received – even from Winston Peters back in the day – shows the esteem in which politicians held the public service, and the role it played in combatting Covid.
At Esther restaurant on Auckland’s Viaduct today, Bloomfield’s presence appears to have been clocked by other patrons, but they are keeping a kindly distance.
He’s just walked 25 minutes from the medical school at Auckland University and is happy to stay on sparkling water for the duration of lunch. We share the puff bread for a starter and move straight to mains – the mutton ragu for him; the pappardelle for me.
For enjoyment, he’s on a mountain bike with mates regularly. He walks a lot. He’s a prolific reader – “science fiction is kind of my go-to now”, but also non-fiction, “global affairs, international politics”.
Podcasts are a “joy” – he’s been listening to Alastair Campbell’s The Rest is Politics most recently.
Bloomfield has been on several overseas trips recently, both professionally and personally. He’s just come back from Geneva and this week he’s in India for a presentation, updating the G20 group of health ministers.
He and the family have just spent time on an overseas holiday – including an eight-day walk in the Swiss Alps, and some time for him and Libby in New York. “Just seeing the most beautiful places and enjoying life really.”
Bloomfield, who was born in Napier and raised in Tawa, met Libby when they studied medicine at Auckland University. They then worked together in Whangarei, before their first OE together – a cycle tour through Europe. Upon his return to New Zealand, Bloomfield started focusing on public health; he joined the Ministry of Heath in the late 1990s.
The couple live in Eastbourne, on the east coast of Wellington Harbour, and are members of the local St Albans Church. Bloomfield had all three children home for that first lockdown – the youngest was already living there, the second oldest was home from university and the oldest was working from home as an engineer.
“Having them all at home was really helpful for me at a personal level in terms of keeping me grounded and maintaining my own mental and emotional wellbeing.”
Bloomfield is big on leadership. Sitting with him at lunch, for almost two hours, has been as much instructional about leading teams as it has been about our Covid health response and related topics.
The best people who lead during a crisis are those people who lead best day in day out, he says. “They’re values-based, open, transparent. They care about people; their behaviours are empowering of other people. People don’t change their behaviour or their leadership style in a crisis – it’s just amplified and accentuated.”
I ask him about his own strengths and weaknesses as a leader.
He cares about values and “what my expectations are behaviourally, and I hold myself to account around those behaviours”.
“I’d like to think there’s no gap between what I say and what I do.”
He says he’s inclusive, loves working in and creating teams. But the “shadow side” of that, he says, is that he can sometimes see a way forward quickly and leave others behind. Sometimes he needs to slow down.
He says he can be also “overly optimistic”. “Which is a good thing because positivity is such an important leadership attribute… but the shadow side of that is sometimes I can knowingly or unknowingly neglect the negatives or the risks.
“Yes, sometimes I can be too Pollyanna-ish.”
Before I met with Bloomfield for lunch, a senior medical source told me the former director general had a reputation for being a micromanager. Bloomfield admits this is, or was, the case.
“My approach to delegation would be not just look, here’s what we need to achieve, but also I would have a very good idea about the what and the how… and that’s very disempowering of people.”
He’s “definitely” made improvements in this area, he says. Covid helped him. He likens it to the military, with the role of commanders painting the picture of a mission.
“It [Covid] was a great lesson in leadership because I saw people – without me having to say anything – getting it and just doing extraordinary things. Things that actually were fundamental to our success.”
I admire his self-awareness, and tell him so. “The best leaders are the ones who are extremely self-aware, constantly seeking feedback… I’m not saying I’m in that category; it’s always a work in progress.”
I ask Bloomfield if his Covid jigsaw puzzle has been completed.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of what it looks like. There may be still some changes to come; there are still emerging variants.
“But we’ve seen the pandemic is no longer [classified as] a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, we’ve settled into a pattern in New Zealand and globally where it’s not the main thing.
“We’ve got a really good understanding, we’ve got effective vaccines, we’ve got effective treatments.
“Our health systems have settled into a pattern of being able to manage the sort of residual impact of Covid although, of course, one section of the puzzle that’s still evolving is that around long Covid: just what the long-term trajectory is for some of these people with very significant ongoing symptoms; what the rehabilitation and treatment options are for them.
“There’s still people dying but again we’ve got a residual level of acceptance that that’s the ongoing impact here.”
Bloomfield is also happy to see changed behaviour around how we treat hygiene and sickness now.
The whole work-from-home set-up has led many workers to keep their sniffles at home, working on Zoom or Teams, rather than risk infecting their colleagues.
Bloomfield is now working at Auckland University three days a week, with a mixture of lectures – including public health, population health, leadership, communications – and working with the vice-chancellor.
“I’m really enjoying being around the students again, you know, they just bring that energy and I love the vibe about being in university. And normally the other couple of days of my week is working with the vice chancellor on her ambition to establish a public policy impact institute.”
He’s also still a public servant in the sense he is contracted to MFAT and working with the World Health Organisation on a review of international health regulations. “It sounds boring but it’s fascinating,” he insists.
“It’s a negotiation – 194 countries. I’m co-chairing the process. Invariably people are in awe of what New Zealand did… you know, ‘how did you guys do it?’”
He’s on the public speaking circuit and has also just signed a new partnership with Southern Cross to promote its classroom mindfulness programme, Pause Breathe Smile, for New Zealand primary and intermediate school kids.
Using mindfulness techniques, the programme – fully funded by Southern Cross – aims to increase calmness, improve focus and attention, reduce stress and lead to boosted wellbeing.
Bloomfield has taken the Pause Breathe Smile teaching course, and now adds five or 10 minutes each morning on his own mindfulness.
“It’s something I’ve never done. My wife’s been trying to get me to do it for a long time. She and a couple of my kids do it.
“I’ve just found it very centring. I guess it’s like meditation. It’s that sitting and really thinking about nothing but just allowing your mind and body to centre.”
While Bloomfield lives a relatively healthy lifestyle, he does think the Government needs to be doing more to help New Zealanders.
He’s rightly proud of the work that he and health authorities have led over the years to reduce tobacco consumption – now at just 8 per cent of the population and still falling.
But on food, Bloomfield says we have been “quite timid”; he’s concerned about obesity levels and diabetes.
Other countries have been “more courageous” in introducing reformulated food and introducing taxes on the likes of sugar and sweetened beverages.
“Here’s the thing, often just the intention to introduce it or the threat of introducing it forces companies to change. Companies reformulate their products.”
He praises the Heart Foundation for the work it’s been doing in working with the industry to reduce salt in bread, potato chips and cereals.
“This was a stunning realisation to me just travelling through Europe recently.
“Mea culpa, I’m a big potato chip fan. The salt content in our potato chips is between a third and a fifth of what it is in potato chips in Europe. We have much less.
“We know that salt intake is a recipe for hypertension. It’s a recipe for heart disease. It’s a recipe for strokes.
“If you reformulate and slowly drop the amount of salt, people don’t notice; likewise, reformulation around fat content and so on.
“There’s been some good work here, but probably I would say at a political and policy level, especially if you contrast it with our huge successes around tobacco control, there’s a lot of work to do.”
He also wants very strong regulation on vaping.
“I started to get worried as soon as tobacco companies started to buy up vaping firms because they don’t have a moral compass, they don’t have an ethical approach to these things.
“Even if they are publicly saying they’re not trying to hook younger people on vaping, they spend billions of dollars every year in manufacturing market products that are clearly aimed at a youth audience.”
On alcohol, he’d like to see more work and focus on advertising. Unlike tobacco – harmful in every sense – the issue with alcohol is harmful use. “The environment is a big shaper of the way people use alcohol, including access to it, places, the hours. Advertising does have an influence.”
On the health reforms, he says: “I think those leading it are good people and they’re doing their best to put in place the bones to realise what the Government’s ambition is.”
Which, I say, hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement.
“It’s tough, it’s challenging and the other sort of challenging aspect of it is that we’re right in the thick of an election cycle as well.
“And that creates uncertainty because different parties will have different views about where the health system goes from here.
“There are different views around the establishment of a Māori Health Authority. I won’t offer a personal view except to say it’s quite clear our system does not deliver for Māori as well as it does for non-Māori. And there’s an absolute imperative to address that.
“The uncertainty around different political views about whether a Māori health authority should or shouldn’t stay in place, creates a difficult working environment as well for those to start working there.
“And that then has an impact on how the system can function. I totally support my colleagues who are trying to lead the system.”
After a summer break in late 2021/early 2022, he came to the start of 2022 and decided time was up in his own leadership role.
Omicron had emerged as the fifth of Covid variants (after Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta) – less deadly but more contagious, rendering the Government’s elimination strategy useless.
It was tough politically, and he’d just come through a relentless two years where he could never really switch off.
Combine that with the new health reforms mid-year, and he was ready to step aside.
“I came back in the beginning of ‘22 and after a couple of months, [thought] no actually, I need to step aside, give some clear air for those who are coming in with the health system changes that were starting in late July.
“Part of being a good leader, I think, is knowing when the time is right to step down as well.”
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Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor.