Dr Ashley Bloomfield stepping down as Director-General of Health

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, who led New Zealand's health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is stepping down as Director-General of Health.

According to a statement from the Public Service Commission, Dr Bloomfield signalled late last year that he intended to step down before his term was scheduled to end on June 11, 2023. He will finish in the role at the end of July, meaning he is leaving nearly a year early.

In a statement, Dr Bloomfield said it has "been a huge privilege to be appointed to the Director-General of Health role and I've committed myself wholeheartedly to the role for nearly four years".

"The DG role is complex and challenging at any time and, with a one in 100 years pandemic, the last two years have been particularly challenging and intense.

"I've done everything I set out to do when I came into the role. I would not have been able to do this without the support of many highly committed and talented people in the Ministry and across the wider health system. 

"The wider public service has done an outstanding job in helping lead the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s been a pleasure working with other public service leaders to help deliver the response."

Dr Bloomfield said that with the changing nature of the pandemic and upcoming changes to the health sector "it's a good time for me to step back and allow a new Director-General to shape and lead the organisation in future".

"I'm confident the health sector and the COVID-19 response are in good hands, that NZ will continue to deliver a world-class response to the pandemic, and those leading the health system will plan and deliver the full range of care that New Zealanders need following the Omicron outbreak.

"Over the coming four months I will be focused on ensuring the Ministry of Health is well placed to take on its future role in the new system, and that the systems and people are in place to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the additional challenges of flu and other illnesses through winter.

"I'm looking forward to taking an extended break and spending time with family before deciding on what I will do next."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Dr Bloomfield's "tireless dedication, his focus on people and his calm and considered approach" has shown him as a "true public servant".

"He has been central to our COVID success as a nation and he's done it with humour and grace (I'll keep the details of his sporadic mockery of me to myself)," Ardern said.

"When we spoke about his decision to move on, he mentioned that he wanted to spend time with his family, and that's the least we owe him. So kia ora from across the Motu, Dr Bloomfield. We thank you."

Little known prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Bloomfield has become a national figure over the last two years. His image has since been printed across shirts, mugs and various other objects, while he also featured in viral music videos.

He has appeared alongside the Prime Minister and ministers at daily press conferences throughout the various outbreaks. The Director-General was nominated for the 2020 NZTV Awards' TV Personality of the Year but withdrew himself.

During the 25th annual Parliamentary rugby match, Dr Bloomfield scored the first try. Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard warned players before the match that "anyone who hurts Ashley Bloomfield is in real trouble".

His constant presence throughout the Government's response to the pandemic led him to being called the most powerful unelected New Zealander since the first Governor of New Zealand in 1841 by ACT's David Seymour. Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer wrote in 2020 that it's been "a long time since a public servant has become so well-known".

On Wednesday, Ardern said there aren't "many public servants I have got to know as well as Dr Ashley Bloomfield". 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, who worked closely with Dr Bloomfield, said on Wednesday that the outgoing Director-General "has been a calm, informative, and reassuring figure throughout our response to COVID-19". 

"The amount of pressure he’s absorbed, and the level of commitment he’s shown over the past two years make that an easy decision to understand. We thank you Ashley for all you’ve done to keep us all safe. Give the man a beer, he’s truly earned it!"

Public Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said Dr Bloomfield has worked "tirelessly for more than two years to keep New Zealanders safe from coronavirus".

"Dr Bloomfield has demonstrated remarkable resilience and courage in leading the health system’s overall response to COVID-19. That response has saved lives," said Hughes.

"I thank Dr Bloomfield for his commitment to public service, his spirit of service to the community and his exceptional contribution to New Zealand’s COVID-19 response. I know many New Zealanders will also be thankful for the job he has done."

Hughes said Dr Bloomfield "always wanted to stay until New Zealand was in a good place with coronavirus [and] that time is now". 

Dr Bloomfield believes July is a "good time to step away and have an extended break", Hughes said.

Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall tweeted that, as a minister, she wanted to thank Dr Bloomfield "for advising the Govt on some of the most important decisions taken in peacetime".

"As a doctor I want to acknowledge @AshBloomfield as a colleague who has made an unparalleled contribution to protecting the health of New Zealanders."

An acting Director-General will be appointed before Dr Bloomfield finishes on July 29.

Dr Bloomfield took the top health role at the Ministry of Health in 2018. He qualified in medicine at the University of Auckland in 1990, spent several years doing clinical work before specialising in public health medicine.

"His particular area of professional interest is non-communicable disease prevention and control, and he spent 2011 at the World Health Organization in Geneva working on this topic at a global level," the Ministry of Health says.

"Dr Bloomfield was Chief Executive at Hutt Valley District Health Board from 2015 to 2018. Prior to that, he held a number of senior leadership roles within the Ministry of Health."