Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern justifies not sacking Health Minister David Clark

The Prime Minister has justified not sacking Health Minister David Clark after he broke COVID-19 lockdown rules, saying she will "not sacrifice" the Government's response to the pandemic.

"Under normal circumstances I would sack the minister. What he did was wrong and there are no excuses," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Tuesday.

"But my priority above all else is our collective fight against COVID-19. That requires leadership amongst our DHBs. It requires a good understanding of workforce issues.

"It requires an intimate knowledge of our health system, which we have been working so hard to rebuild. And of course it requires complex knowledge of this global pandemic and what it means here in New Zealand."

The Prime Minister said she determined that the Government "cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector or to our response" - hence Dr Clark will keep his Health portfolio despite flouting the lockdown rules.

Dr Clark apologised last week for driving 2.3km to go mountain biking, after his van sporting a picture of his face was spotted at a track in Dunedin called The Big Easy.

"This was my only chance to get out for some exercise in daylight hours," he said in a statement at the time. "This is a reminder to me to think carefully about how best to fit some exercise into my new-normal routine."

The Government has urged Kiwis to avoid non-essential travel. The official Government COVID-19 website says you can leave home to "access essential services", go to work if you work for an essential service and go for a local walk.

Backlash came from search and rescue, who said Dr Clark risked the lives of their workers because they would be required to break self-isolation to rescue him if something happened.

Dr Clark then revealed on Tuesday morning that not only had he travelled 2.3km to go mountain biking, but he also drove his family approximately 20km from his house in Dunedin to Doctor's Point Beach for a walk.

"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 in a statement.

The Prime Minister rejected the notion that Dr Clark only came clean about breaching the rules because of intense media scrutiny. She said he disclosed the previously unrevealed breach to prepare for fronting up to the Epidemic Response Committee.

"Regardless of how it came up, there is no excuse, it was wrong, [and] he needs to pay the price," Ardern said. "But the price cannot be paid through our response to this global pandemic."

Ardern said it would challenging to bring a new MP up to speed with Dr Clark's portfolio. 

"I've determined that this is the right thing to do."

Dr Clark will keep his Health portfolio, but the Prime Minister has stripped him of his role as Associate Finance Minister and demoted him to the bottom of Cabinet's rankings.