Health Minister's mountain biking controversy: Search and rescue say it puts volunteers at risk

The Health Minister is holding onto his job but has been forced to apologise to the Prime Minister for flouting lockdown rules by driving to a mountain bike park for a spin in the hills, and search and rescue say people who do activities like that are putting the lives of their volunteers at risk.

The Government's message so far has been crystal clear, to "stay home, save lives", and it's for good reason: if we didn't do that "thousands of New Zealanders would die - it's as simple as that", according to the Prime Minister.

But it's not so simple for Health Minister David Clark, who drove his van with a picture of his face on the side of it to a mountain bike park for a ride in the hills during COVID-19 lockdown.

Mike Daisley, chief executive of the Mountain Safety Council, says "risk and adrenaline" is part of the sport's attraction, but he said it's "not the time for adrenaline-related activities right now".

Dr Clark rode a track called The Big Easy because it's not too tough, but it still carries risk.

"It's the type of activity that things can go wrong even if you are biking well within your abilities," Daisley told Newshub.

Even in normal times, search and rescue volunteers risk their lives to save lives, and by flouting his own lockdown rules, Dr Clark put them at risk.

Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) chief executive Carl McOnie told Newshub: "By being called out, we unintentionally put those emergency services in harm's way and at risk - not only of the search and rescue operation, but of COVID-19."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson filled in for the Prime Minister on Friday for her daily COVID-19 update, and Newshub asked him if the Health Minister had offered the PM his resignation.

"No he didn't," Robertson replied. "But he did apologise to the Prime Minister and he understands that he needs to be leading by example. He didn't do that in this case."

Asked if Dr Clark should have resigned, Robertson said: "No, I don't believe so."

The Health Minister has been working from home, conspicuously absent from the Government's public COVID-19 response.

"He's available to front anytime," Robertson said. "He happens to be in Dunedin."

Dr Clark refused Newshub's repeated requests for an interview, instead sending a short statement. He says while cycling on gravel tracks is one of his usual forms of exercise, these are not usual times.

On reflection, after the media ousted him, he realised he should have chosen a better option like walking, running, or cycling on the flat - because no one is above the rules.

Asked if mountain biking should be allowed during lockdown, Dr Clark's own health boss, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, gave a reminder that no one is above the rules.

"Any physical activity should be done safely and locally."

McOnie said, "Listen to the official advice - anybody, regardless of your position within the community."

How's the Prime Minister taking the news? 

Analysis by Political Editor Tova O'Brien 

The Prime Minister's Finance MInister was filling in for her on Friday, a well-deserved day out of the spotlight for Jacinda Ardern but not great timing. 

Given she's been the one hammering that message home - to stay home - you can bet she was fuming.

Let's recap David Clark's list of stupid moves

He defied his own boss's orders.

He risked the safety of emergency services.

And not just Search and Rescue - if he'd hurt himself he may have required medical help and they've got enough on their plate.

He also drove to the mountain bike park, which we're not supposed to do.

All of that could've helped spread the virus.

He's the Health Minister. In a health crisis the likes of which we've never seen in our lifetimes.

It is baffling that David Clark didn't offer his resignation to the Prime Minister.