Jacinda Ardern credits David Clark with helping rid New Zealand of COVID-19

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is sticking up for her former Health Minister, despite accepting his resignation from the role this week.

Despite New Zealand's success in fighting off the coronavirus pandemic, David Clark's handling of it has been widely criticised - partly for choosing to stay at home in Dunedin during the lockdown rather than base himself in Wellington, leading to accusations he was AWOL, and for multiple breaches of the lockdown rules.

Ardern declined to accept his resignation during the lockdown, saying that would cause too much disruption during a time of crisis. But she did this week, agreeing with Dr Clark that his continued presence in the role was "distracting from the Government's overall response to COVID-19 and the global pandemic".

Despite his resignation, Ardern told Newshub Nation on Saturday Dr Clark had "all of the knowledge and the technical knowledge" to lead the country's health response to the pandemic.

"We've always put the COVID recovery first, and at that time, we were at the height of our response. I wanted to prioritise continuity, I wanted to prioritise holding onto the knowledge base that the minister had in driving our response, and my view that that was not the time to lose a Health Minister."

She said Dr Clark's skills and knowhow helped New Zealand eliminate the virus. All the country's current cases are in people arriving from overseas - despite tens of thousands of tests being carried out over the past few weeks, zero evidence of local transmission has been found. 

Newshub Nation host Tova O'Brien put it to Ardern that Dr Clark was "incompetent" and wouldn't have been able to handle another outbreak of the virus, which has killed more than half-a-million people overseas. 

"Obviously minister Clark himself has reflected on what's happened in that period of time, and of course, prioritised our COVID response by making the choice to stand down," said Ardern.

"I would still reflect, though, that we are a country that is in a unique position, because of the work that's been done, because of the work of our health officials, but also his role has meant that New Zealand is in that position in the first place. So I would not characterise him in that way."

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

The health role was given to Chris Hipkins, who's already Leader of the House, Education Minister, and State Services Minister. O'Brien asked if that showed a lack of depth in the Labour caucus.

"No, not at all," said the Prime Minister. "When I cast around and think about the breadth of talent and the range of skills that our minister have, we have been well served. 

"You know, think about, for instance, when we first came in, we were faced with a massive biosecurity incursion in Mycoplasma bovis, and it's been the leadership of Damian O'Connor that's helped us get through that. My finger scanning around the Cabinet table - Stuart Nash has managed a massive business transformation in IRD and seen some of the biggest recruitment in the New Zealand Police that New Zealand’s had in recent times. 

"Of course, then, Minister Hipkins, [Finance] Minister [Grant] Robertson - fantastic performers. [Environment] Minister [David] Parker leading our trade negotiations now with [the] UK and the EU and writing essential freshwater reforms. 

"I could give you a list for every one of my ministers. They are a solid team who have driven change through some very trying times, and I feel well served by them."

New Zealand has had 22 deaths from COVID-19 so far.