Coronavirus: Dr David Clark demoted, resignation offered after trip to beach during lockdown

Health Minister Dr David Clark has offered the Prime Minister his resignation after he admitted to a 20km drive to the beach during the lockdown.

In preparation for his appearance at the Epidemic Response Committee, Dr Clark on Monday night provided the Prime Minister with a  "complete picture of my activity outside my home during Alert Level 4". 

According to Dr Clark, during the first weekend of the nationwide lockdown, he and his family drove approximately 20km from his home in Dunedin to Doctor's Point Beach for a walk, which he admits violated restrictions.

Recognising the beach trip was a "clear breach of the lockdown principles of staying local and not driving long distances to reach recreation spots", he offered his resignation to Jacinda Ardern.

She has not accepted it but has stripped him of another role.

"Under normal conditions I would sack the Minister of Health. What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses," Ardern said.

"But right now, my priority is our collective fight against COVID-19. We cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector or to our response. For that reason, and that reason alone, Dr Clark will maintain his role.

"But he does need to pay a price. He broke the rules.

"While he maintains his Health portfolio, I am stripping him of his role as Associate Finance Minister and demoting him to the bottom of our Cabinet rankings.

Ardern said she, as well as New Zealand, expect better.

Doctors Point Beach.
Doctors Point Beach. Photo credit: Newshub.

Dr Clark said as the Health Minister he should not only be following the rules but should "set an example to other New Zealanders".

"At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I’ve let the team down. I’ve been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me,"  Dr Clark said.

He said as well as his beach trip, he drove his family to a walking track about 2km away from their home and has gone for several runs locally. He says that is within the rules.

Dr Clark came under fire last week after his van was pictured at a Dunedin mountain biking tracking more than 2km from his home. He confirmed he drove to the park for a ride on the 'The Big Easy' trail.

He told Newshub at the time: "While cycling on gravel tracks is one of my usual forms of exercise these are not usual times".

"Even though I deliberately opted for an easy, local track, on reflection I realise I should have chosen a better option such as walking, running, or cycling on the flat."

Dr Clark apologised to the Prime Minister for that, but did not offer his resignation.

The nationwide lockdown was imposed nearly two weeks ago in an effort to limit person-to-person contact and therefore potential exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus which has spread across the globe. People cannot leave their homes unless it is absolutely necessary, non-essential businesses must close and schools have been shut.

On Friday night, the Director-General of Health issued a new health notice laying out requirements for Kiwis during the lockdown after many expressed confusion, such as about how far people can go during exercise and whether driving to a park is acceptable for recreation.

The notice highlights that Kiwis must stay at their residence unless it is for "essential personal movement", and while out, they must maintain physical distancing. "Essential personal movement" includes accessing essential businesses or providing essential services as well as for leaving the house for "limited recreation purposes".

However, the notice puts some conditions on this. 

A person can only leave their residence for exercise or recreation if it is done in an "outdoor place that can be readily accessed from their residence" and does not involve any activity that exposes "participants to danger or may require search and rescue services". While out people must continue to be two metres away from others, with large gatherings not allowed.

What is meant by an outdoor area that can be readily accessed isn't explicitly defined in the notice, but when asked on Saturday, Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield said: "It may be walking out your front door or cycling from your front door".

"But we have also said if you need to drive a short distance in your local area to get to a place of recreation, and thay may be necessary for some people, that is fine".

For information about the dos and don'ts during lockdown, Kiwis have been pointed towards the Government's COVID-19 website, which is regularly updated with the latest advice. 

There have been more than 1100 cases of the coronavirus in New Zealand, with one death. More than 1.3 million people worldwide have the illness and at least 70,000 have died.