Chris Trotter looks at the political machinations of the coronavirus crisis during an election year noting National's window to attack is narrow but Health Minister David Clark must step up

Chris Trotter looks at the political machinations of the coronavirus crisis during an election year noting National's window to attack is narrow but Health Minister David Clark must step up
David Clark by Jacky Carpenter.

By Chris Trotter*

“Brownie, you're doing a helluva job!” George Bush’s premature commendation of Michael Brown, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina, is infamously ironic. Because, of course, “Brownie” wasn’t doing “a helluva job”. Indeed, Bush’s appointee had so utterly failed to deal with one the United States’ worst natural disasters, that he was quietly relieved of his disaster relief responsibilities. Had he not been so closely associated with the President he would have been summarily sacked.

Bush’s notoriously tin-eared response to Katrina is said by many historians of his presidency to mark the beginning of his own fall from political grace. Fifteen years on, to observe that a leading politician, or a senior public official, is doing “a helluva job” has come to mean the precise opposite. The last thing the Prime Minister wants to hear in relation to her handling of the Covid-19 Virus medical emergency is the derisive cat-call – “Helluva job, Jacinda!”

On the other hand, this emergency could win the 2020 General Election for the Prime Minister. If she is able to ensure that vital medical and bureaucratic resources are properly marshalled and distributed; if she becomes the reassuring face of an effective and protective state; most particularly, if she is able to ensure the fast and free flow of relevant information to a cellphone-wielding citizenry ravenous for any and every scrap of news; then her standing will rise to new, potentially legendary, heights; and Simon Bridges will become the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

Making this happen will, however, be no easy matter. The capacity of the New Zealand state to deliver effective protection to its citizens in an emergency has been seriously eroded by decades of administrative and financial stringency. The endless horror stories emanating from the public institutions established to deal with the effects of the Christchurch earthquakes testify to the sheer scale of the problem. Transitioning public servants rapidly from the strict managerialist ethos of the State Sector Act, to one more suited to the open-ended state intervention and care mandated by emergency conditions, has become extremely challenging.

And risky. In terms of potential cock-ups, the Prime Minister needs to keep a particularly close watch on her Health Minister, David Clark. A more “political” politician than Clark would already have stepped forward to make the challenge of Covid-19 his own. Unfortunately, Clark has an unfortunate reputation for being “guided” almost entirely by his officials. Certainly, he has displayed a consistent unwillingness to be held to account by the news media. Not even the current crisis has been enough to change his “no, you do it” approach. Rather than Clark’s, it is Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield’s visage that is fast become the face of this Government’s response to Covid-19.

But, Bloomfield is a health professional, not a politician – a job which requires a very special set of skills. Not the least of these is the ability to anticipate – and head off – potentially disastrous errors before they happen.

The news that the Covid-19 virus had arrived in New Zealand aboard Emirates Flight EK450 should have prompted Clark to demand that every single passenger who’d disembarked in Auckland be tested for the virus and placed on the hottest of hot-lists for follow-up monitoring by the front-line anti-virus fighters at Healthline. Effective containment of the disease isn’t just a medical obligation: for Clark, it’s a political necessity.

If the Health Minister had been alert to the multitude of risk factors present in the circumstances of the virus’s arrival in New Zealand, then National’s Health Spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, would not have been in a position to release the following details to the news media:

“National has been contacted by a passenger who was on the flight who developed a cough after landing. He called Healthline asking whether he should go to the hospital for a check-up. He was told not to worry if his temperature is under 38 degrees. He was also advised to take Panadol which would lower a temperature. He was told that he would not need to self-isolate and could go to work on Monday. He has chosen to go into isolation anyway.”

It’s a wonder Woodhouse didn’t entitle his media statement “Helluva job, Clarkie!”

The National Opposition has only a narrow window of opportunity within which to imprint the sort of messages that will turn the Covid-19 Crisis to its political advantage. As the number of New Zealanders infected with the virus multiplies, the opportunities for National to intervene – without coming across as indecently opportunistic political ghouls – will shrink.  Hence Woodhouse’s urgency in driving home National’s key message: “Response to coronavirus totally inadequate”. Repeated endlessly, and fleshed out with the sort of anecdotal evidence that National’s Health Spokesperson has already passed on, the Opposition’s “totally inadequate response” mantra may soon pose a clear and present danger to the Government’s re-election chances.

The Prime Minister must make it crystal clear to her Health Minister that he needs to step-up right now and take personal control of the way the Government’s fightback against the Covid-19 Virus is presented to the public. Woodhouse was stating no more than the truth in his release when he said: “The Minister should be providing consistent public reassurance to prevent panic – it can no longer just be left to officials.”

And that word, “panic”, is not misplaced. The scenes that unfolded in supermarkets across Auckland, as news of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in New Zealand filtered through the community, revealed a population whose anxiety levels are dangerously elevated. To bring those levels down, effective containment of the outbreak is absolutely essential. Stories about Healthline responders telling people with plausible grounds for believing themselves to be infected to take a couple of Panadol and head in to work on Monday, will not only spread like wildfire, but they will also undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the state’s first line of defence.

The Prime Minister simply cannot afford to let these sorts of rumours get away on her. The gap which separates Jacinda Ardern from being seen to have led New Zealand safely through a serious national crisis; and having to shoulder the blame for an election-losing national tragedy, is perilously narrow. Having an effective and trustworthy Health Minister standing at her side for the duration of the fightback is essential. If that role isn’t one David Clark feels up to playing, then he, or Jacinda, should urgently arrange for it to be given to somebody else.

Because, when it comes to getting us through the Covid-19 Crisis, the Prime Minister and her government really are obligated to do “a helluva job”.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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I dont think we can blame the health minister for the panic buying at the supermarket,crowd behaviour is contagious.maybe they were new migrants from china where official assurance that everything is under control means it is time to panic.

I went into Pak n Save Wairau to get some beer for a BBQ early Saturday morning , and the queues stocking up were not Asians ..............looked to me more like a cross section of the faces I see every day on the Shore

yes,I am not surprised you cant tell them apart.and those video clips on the news were definitely faked,probably targetting one ethnic group to interview,shameful.

not surprising for a 'democry'...

NZ's ministers are increasingly become just political figure heads or actors, worrying about only their political career, living in their own circles and dreams, reading from scripts written by others, following only popular trends not investigating any hard truth.

this tendency has already trickle down to CEO and senior management level of each ministries.


a demo of crying then? Think more likely your homeland at present, unfortunately for the long suffering populace.

Oh dear Xingmo, your poor command of English will see you reported to your CCP overlords if you are not careful.

I notice you always seem to get 3 quick likes. Are they from your fellow propagandists chained to the cubicles next to you?

Gotta get that social credit score up somehow, huh? Tough times when you're under the boot of the CCP.

Not good enough. Being lazy at this stage will come at horrendous cost in 6 months. Up to 100k dead in NZ if it takes hold, but that is the optimistic end; the 1-2% death rate touted will go up massively if we get more than ~1% of population infected and hospitals are overwhelmed. No country outside obfuscating/lying China and Iran has yet hit that scale of infection (though just a matter of time) so we are being lulled into false sense of optimism.

The fatally rate is 1 to 2% of those *infected*. 2% of 5million is 100,000. So for 100,000 kiwis to die would require every NZ citizen to be infected which seems unlikely....

You are getting good at emulating your dear leader in your ability to totally blow everything out of proportion

Its hypermedia that is the true infection, not corona. Chris ask yourself if you'd be panic buying if you DIDN'T know about corvid in the firstplace. Me I am not worried about corona, I'm more worried about things that matter, such as sorting out the political donations issue and addressing the sky high immigration rate, which it can be argued simply happened without so much as a debate in public about why we need it and if we should even allow it....stuff that matters...

I would prefer that we didn't politicise Corona virus. I suspect that will increase the chance of mistakes and therefore increases the risk to all of us.


The MoH should have been all over this! They don't need the Minister's permission. The cost of prevention is heaps less than the cost of management once it gets here. The Minister will be spouting advice from the Ministry, and he needs to hold them to account for the quality of that advice!

We are an Island with a natural moat.Nothing else needs to be said really.

Except, of course, that thousands of the drawbridges of international air travel are still down, and the portcullis' of customs and biosecurity are still up, appear to be rusted and seized into place...

Bloomfield has been/is asleep at the wheel, Clark will blame him....

We haven't seen this spreading extensively in warm climates yet. It might end up being a seasonal thing.

Which could be bloody disastrous for NZ on top of the regular 'flu cycle.
Saying that, every day we don't have widespread infection is a day available for state / public preparedness.
Succumbing to panic is the worst outcome.

True. But extroplate from the Ro transmission rate (range of 2 to 3) and an average time between infection and passing it to another of 7 days and the peak would hit NZ in late winter. Drastic actions might reduce that Ro and then the peak is delayed and flattened. Life saving. Maybe a vaccine discovered before our NZ peak.
I expect the Diamond princess was far warmer than my typical NZ home.

I concur completely with Trotter here.

Clark is not a guy you'd want in charge of anything serious that requires a dynamic response.
On his best days, he's an apparatchik.

you dont get appointed minister of health if you are dynamic and have empathy with sick people,past ministers include bill english,helen clark and jenny shipley who were not mother teresa personalities either.he is expecting the health ministry to do the job they have been collecting big salaries for,however they act as if they dont know what all the fuss is about.

There's a huge gulf of difference between a "Mother Teresa" archetype (she was detestable IMO), and expecting a Minister of the Crown to be front and centre / visibly acting as a potential crisis unfolds.

The economic implosion that is about to smash the global economy and in NZ's case, aided by a drought, will not be blamed on this govt. Come election time NZ politics will be seen of little if any consequence - far bigger issues will be at the forefront than what symun or guzinta are rabbiting on about.

I hope you are wrong but fear you are right.

People are not panicking they are using their heads. You want 2 months of supplies in your pantry its just common sense to purchase non perishable items you will eventually use anyway. Bottom line is the government has already stuffed this up and it was always going to happen once the first case of Coronavirus arrived in New Zealand. All unnecessary flights should have been cancelled 2 weeks ago and only NZ Citizens wanting to return should have been allowed into the country and even then they all should have been put in a decent quarantine facility (that we don't even have) for a period of 3 weeks if they were returning from anywhere with confirmed cases.

The military base used is the perfect quarantine space.

Agree 100%

Well having a quick look at MoH health targets, the shorter stays in ED result isn't looking too good. Some individual DHBs look awful. But hey, we're ready to do this.

Oh for goodness sake ........... WTF is a "window to attack "?

Its the opposition's job to keep Government on its toes in a crisis like this , and I expect ANY Government to be under pressure to step up .

This Government has been asleep at the wheel , and this is the same Health Minister who was holidaying on the Gold Coast in the middle of a shutdown due to Health Worker's strike

As a Chinese proverb says 'The fish rots from the head' and so it is with businesses and other organisations - the buck starts and stops in the leadership.

It refers to failing organizations and how the blame of it should be on its 'head' that is its leadership. (

Boatman. Speaking of gold coast, spouse arrived back Saturday from southport AUS to learn that 40 clients had been exposed at a beauty treatment spa to a covid19 carrying beautician. She wasn't one of them but was attending a conference in the area attended by over 1000 people.

The supermarket panic is transient - we have more than enough depth of stock to get everything back on the shelves. Until chinese supplied goods start to dry up in another month or two. Food won't be a problem, cleaning products and plastic goods will. Soon chinese shortages will impact everything - like packaging supplies for locally produced foods, as well as electronics, appliances and other manufactured items. Supply chains are fragile and only 2-3months deep

I just gotta have a new TV wrapped up in all that crap and while i'm watching it i just gotta have my snacks wrapped up in even more.

If the pundits are correct and covid19 is already far more widely established than officials are aware, Ardern's spin masters will simply point to the uncontainable nature of the now established world wide pandemic and say 'we did everything he could but this thing overhwlemed us just like it has every country'. She'll more often be seen in the saintly whiter coloured clothing her advisers are currently dressing her in, suitably emote and romp in at the election.

I feel a frown and a big cuddle could be on the menu.

you left out the metronomically timed head movements from camera to camera

This is exactly what my weekend posts said.

Chris is 100% right here, Clark needs to focus every gram of his effectiveness on this job. In this case, the government should look at appointing an assistant to Clark specifically to oversee this virus risk, to focus 100% on the task at hand. Given the potential huge downside to the population including the economy, we need the government to be fully prepared for all eventualities right now.

Look at what South Korea is doing for example, amazing job. Can Clark and Ardern assure us we can do at least as well as them? That's what we need to hear. The media have a responsibility on behalf of the public to rattle this government's cage for all they're worth to get these assurances.

So, let me get this right... we have an incompetent minister of health running a government department that is woefully under-prepared for any flu invasion let along a major global one from China, on top of which we have a political leader who wants to solve the issue with cuddles. I'm not sure this is going to work is it? Maybe those head scarves might come in handy after all.

The UK govt has not ruled out locking down whole cities - is the government prepared for that? What for example does the Minister for Defence have to say? Is he ready to mobilise the army suitably robed up in protective gear to lockdown whole urban areas? I'll bet the thought hasn't occured to them.

Look I don't know if this is rumour or not, but remember when the Wuhan market virus story first broke one of our media mentioned that among the array of unusual wild animals sold at this market were Koala bears.
Well, I have just heard that there is a link with the Australian bushfires that were raging at the same time; apparently some enterprising Australian Chinese were collecting Koalas that had died in the fire (remember there were thousands of them) and having them smuggled into markets in China including that in the Wuhan market. I'm still trying to verify this. If anybody has any further info on this please post.

Look, I don't know if this is rumour or not, but remember when the Wuhan market virus story first broke one of our media mentioned that among the array of unusual wild animals sold at this market were Koala bears.
Well, I have just heard that there was a link with the Australian bushfires that were raging at the same time; apparently some enterprising Australian Chinese were collecting Koalas that had died in the fire (remember there were thousands of them) and having them smuggled into markets in China including that in Wuhan. I'm still trying to verify this. If anybody has any further info on this please post.

The response so far has been pathetic.
Why are the govt taking such a casual approach at the border?
Why is Air NZ selling $9 domestic flights? What a great way to spread the virus nationally.
Why aren’t authorities disinfecting public transport (trains and buses) daily?

Well this looks poor.

This is the flight the passenger from Iran was on. We have been wondering why the whole plane were not contract traced asap.
Brace yourself for the answer!

People who weren't in the rows the ministry was focusing on did not need to take any precautions, Bloomfield said.

The decision to focus only on particular rows was borne out of evidence from the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which found that only one other person became infected because of another person onboard a flight. "There is a scientific basis for that."

Ventilation systems in aircrafts were "very effective" at filtering out particles, and that included viruses, Bloomfield said.

For your information:
The Ministry of Health's director of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield spoke with Kim Hill of RNZ on Saturday morning, saying the patient was improving, which was "good news".

Dr Bloomfields cheerfully continues on.

The Government has contacted all but ten of the people on the Emirates flight to New Zealand that carried the country's first confirmed coronavirus patient. Those ten people were not sat close to the patient.

From the health minister..

"We know self-isolation works. It is a longstanding and successful approach to managing infectious diseases – and has proved its worth again in recent weeks," he said.

Fancy letting a whole planeload in from Iran,knowing that the disease is right through the country.And then losing track of them.And not realizing that they all need to be tested and quarantined.Tossers, but this slack attitude carries a penalty.Just not for Clark or Bloomfield/Ranger.

Fancy having no idea what you are talking about, and then posting all your misinformation on a news sites comments section.

The plane came from Dubai via Bali. There are no flights to NZ from Iran

Re read the 7th paragraph above. It talks plane.

Re read the 7th paragraph above, it says nothing about "letting a whole planeload in from Iran,knowing that the disease is right through the country."

"news that the Covid-19 virus had arrived in New Zealand aboard Emirates Flight EK450"

suggest you two do a 2 second internet search on EK450

If NZ closed down for 3 weeks of self isolation, tested everyone with a sniffle during that period and instituted mandatory inbound traveler quarantine then we might stop it. But govt lacks the strength of character to take timely effective action (an ounce of prevention is worth a tonne of cure). I'm betting 90% chance we are going to have an epidemic as a result - will be invisible community spread even as we speak.

So much excitement in this forum. Doom and gloomers everywhere. 84,000 cases with a 1.4% mortality rate, the majority being elderly or immune-deficient. It's hardly any worse than influenza in a bad year.

Media hype is all it is.

But it is, or will be, on top of what the year's influenza outcomes will be.

So, an order of magnitude increase in death rate over the flu, and increased transmissibilty isn't an issue?

He was really bad when getting questioned by media. Didn't know where the Nelson people had travelled from, their age of any details other than that. Agree, need to take the bull by the horns and own it.

In terms of potential cock-ups, the Prime Minister needs to keep a particularly close watch on..

PM & pm dept dealing with fallout from last weeks trip to Sydney. Sky news.

How did last weeks trip make anything better?

National seem to still be campaigning on the basis that they're not Labour.

Life imitating art. It's like our political leaders have become more exaggerated than mocking caricatures
May be the root is the UK, UK labour experience and the later association with Jeremy Corbyn.

Possible example of the existential policy crisis being played out in the capital now.