Dr Ashley Bloomfield 'just didn't have enough' left to lead ministry post-major reforms - Health Minister

After an exhausting two years leading New Zealand's COVID-19 response, Dr Ashley Bloomfield decided "he just didn't have enough" left to lead the Ministry of Health for long beyond major reforms this year, the Health Minister says.

Dr Bloomfield announced on Wednesday he will be stepping down as Director-General of Health at the end of July, four years after taking the top health role. Over the course of the pandemic, the doctor has gone from a little-known public servant to a national icon, but he now plans to have an extended break after two gruelling years.

Health Minister Andrew Little told AM on Thursday he was aware Dr Bloomfield had been thinking about his future and received a phone call from him over the weekend confirming he would be leaving.

"He just said to me, look, he's had four years on the job, he's had two years leading the response to the pandemic. He's just exhausted and that's not a surprise because I've seen that in him. I've worked more closely with him in the last year or so myself," Little said.

"He's done a fantastic job in that respect. It doesn't surprise me that it's feeling that way. Then, knowing with the reforms, there'd be a change process within the ministry, and I think he just decided he didn't want to be doing that."

The upcoming reforms will see the Ministry of Health move into more of a strategic and policy-orientated role, while the Government is establishing a new body, HealthNZ, to replace the current 20 District Health Boards and oversee health services. The Māori Health Authority has also been created to focus on equitable outcomes for Māori.

Little said there will continue to be a Director-General, who will "still be kind of the leader of the health system, the apex of the health system", but changes are afoot.

"There are some people who are being transferred to HealthNZ and Māori Health Authority. There is more of that to go. Also just focusing the ministry on what we need it to do, that it does best, which is the policy development, the analysis, the advice to ministers and those sorts of things, and being kind of the overall system sort of steward.

"That's going to require some change within the ministry and I think [Dr Bloomfield] just decided that given everything he's given of himself over the last two years, he just didn't have enough to give doing that work."

Andrew Little and Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Andrew Little and Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Dr Bloomfield said he does have a role in the reforms before he departs.

The change to the new entities comes into effect around July 1, meaning he will still be Director-General for about a month after the changes. He explained he's currently working with the chief executives of the two established interim agencies on the transition.

"I was quite happy with the role I've had and felt that if I look at my career, that's where it had led me to, and I felt that was the place I could and was adding the most value to the system, and I will continue to do that up until July 29."

Asked if the reforms prompted his decision to leave, Dr Bloomfield said it's a good time for someone else to come in and focus on the ministry's new focus.

"The timing of that new system, and what will be a new role for the ministry in this system, in the sense of a much stronger focus on policy and strategy, on monitoring, that's a good time really for someone new to come in and then be able to enhance and focus those functions of the ministry for its future role.

"That's very different from the role I took on four years ago. I think that just is part of the timing around my decision."

He wouldn't say who he thought should take the Director-General job, other than it should be "the best person".

There has been criticism that the Government's health reforms will only create extra layers of bureaucracy and that there could be a lack of coordination across the three entities.

Little on Thursday said HealthNZ and the Māori Health Authority are "working absolutely hand in globe together" and doesn't believe there will be an issue of disagreements between the two.

"I think there'll be some people in the ministry who will know that the ministry is going to reduce in size. There will be a refocusing. But people have been expecting that and knowing that so none of that is a surprise."