Departing Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has revealed what he would have done differently in handling outbreaks of Covid-19.
Dr Bloomfield told Q + A with Jack Tame that the communication and engagement with more vulnerable communities could have been improved, particularly those in South Auckland, where many outbreaks were centred.
“Particularly our Māori, our Pacific, our disabled communities, to get them really involved and understand better what their needs were so that when we got those outbreaks, particularly in South Auckland, which is where they tended to focus, and when we started our vaccination campaign, we had a much better understanding of what their needs were and how to respond to those,” he said.
Particularly in 2021, criticism was launched at the health ministry for failing to engage with at-risk communities, and instead having a top-down approach to communication.
He said Covid-19 had shone a harsh light on systemic problems.
“The pandemic has highlighted and really accentuated our most vulnerable communities and the communities where the healthcare system doesn't deliver and doesn't reach as it should.”
Dr Bloomfield said his pandemic leadership was guided by the words of World Health Organisation scientist Dr Mike Ryan, who said early in 2020 “move fast, have no regrets”.
“The biggest problem and the biggest error is the failure to make a decision and do something. So I guess we did move fast, and not everything went as perfectly as it might have. But our intent was, of course, to protect our population,” said Dr Bloomfield.
On the positive side, Dr Bloomfield said he was most proud of the collective effort to vaccinate more than 90% of New Zealand’s population, saying it “set us up for being able to open up safely”.
The vaccine rollout, while hitting some of the highest numbers in the world, began much more slowly than many comparable countries.
Dr Bloomfield said that was partly a result of New Zealand pursuing elimination as a strategy.
“At that time, there was huge global demand. And as you might expect, Pfizer prioritised both bigger countries but also those countries that had significant outbreaks where people were dying because of the lack of a vaccine,” he said.
He is leaving the role ahead of the official end of his term, which was scheduled to be in the middle of 2023.
However, it comes after an unusually busy and high-profile period as Director-General, which included months of fronting daily press conferences.
The health system is currently undergoing major structural reforms, while on the ground primary care is under severe strain.
As a former clinician, Dr Bloomfield said one of the reasons why the health system is currently so short-staffed is that before Covid, health workers would still come to work even if they were sick, but now they have to isolate.