Explained: How Ashley Bloomfield became the face of the COVID-19 response

You'd have to be in an extreme form of self-isolation to not notice the monumental catapulting into public life of Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. 

He's gone from an obscure public servant to the popular face of the government's COVID-19 response in a matter of weeks, thanks largely to the daily press updates that have become a staple of the new homebound existence of Kiwis. 

But it seems Dr Bloomfield has also taken over the responsibilities of a politician in managing this crisis.

There is, of course, a difference between the responsibilities of the minister, and the responsibilities of the Director-General. So what actually is that difference?

The Health Minister is responsible for providing the policy direction, priorities and framework for the Government's approach to health. They partake in significant decision making in Cabinet and are accountable to Parliament. 

The Director-General has a responsibility to the Health Minister under the State Sector Act 1988 for managing the Ministry of Health. This includes administering legislation and offering expert advice to successive governments. 

But in the case of a pandemic, the Director-General also has a raft of other authority bestowed to him by the Epidemic Preparedness Act of 2006 and the Health Act of 1956.

The Epidemic Preparedness Act allows the Prime Minister to issue an epidemic notice. This means the usual law-making processes used by parliament can be by-passed. This ensures no legislation could block any necessary action by public health officials to combat the virus. 

COVID-19 has been classed as a quarantinable disease under the Health Act of 1956. This allows public health officials, who are chosen by the Director-General, to employ rules that can be enforced by police. These include quarantine, restricted travel or the closing of premises. 

These specific powers under the Epidemic Preparedness Act and the Health Act dissolve after the pandemic has resolved itself, whenever that may be. 

Unlike a politician the Director-General does not need to take the political consequences of their actions into account, that's the minister's responsibility. The wishes and wants of the executive, the public and the media can be disregarded when providing advice. 

This is why the Ministry of Health recommended to Cabinet that in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 the borders should be shut even to returning Kiwis. Ministers rejected this proposal because the social, economic and political costs would’ve been too great. It is Cabinet’s responsibility to identify that. 

This is not dissimilar to the case for other heads of government agencies in New Zealand. It's also not unusual for public servants to front press conferences when necessary. 

What is different about Bloomfield, and perhaps what explains his sudden jolt of popularity, is the frequency of his press conferences and the comparative absence of Health Minister David Clark. 

When New Zealand went into lockdown, Clark returned to his home city of Dunedin. He wasn't the only minister to leave Wellington, Winston Peters returned to Whananaki. But questions were raised as to why the Health Minister, one of the key politicians in response to this extraordinary global crisis, did not remain at parliament. 

Clark maintained that he carried out all his usual duties remotely over Zoom, but this essentially left Wellington-based Bloomfield as the man on the ground, and in front of the camera. 

With his daily press conferences providing a regular source of calmly delivered information in a time of massive uncertainty, Kiwis began to revere Bloomfield in a way most politicians, let alone civil servants, can only dream of.

This spawned memes, questionable art, t-shirts, jewellery, and the Director-General fronting a campaign by the Ministry of Health to thank frontline workers.

And then, a few weeks into lockdown it was revealed that the Health Minister breached the rules by driving 20km to go for a walk in the first weekend of level 4. He subsequently offered his resignation to the Prime Minister, who declined but demoted him to the bottom of Cabinet rankings and stripped him of his Associate Finance Minister portfolio. 

This outraged many and further solidified Bloomfield as the de facto Health Minister in the public eye. Bloomfield continued to front the daily press conferences, now dubbed the "The Ashley Bloomfield Show."

Bloomfield has since faced the kind of sustained scrutiny usually reserved for politicians while David Clark fades into the background. 

Journalist's media requests to DHBs around the country are now being referred to the daily 1pm briefings, instead of being provided more detailed responses. Bloomfield is also fronting up to the leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges in heated exchanges at the Epidemic Response Committee