New Zealand’s unlikely pandemic hero Bloomfield says goodbye

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Ashley Bloomfield, the mild-mannered doctor who became an unlikely hero to many New Zealanders during the coronavirus pandemic, held his final media conference Wednesday after resigning as director-general of health.

Perhaps fittingly, Bloomfield, 57, ended up answering as many questions about the topic of the day — water fluoridation — as he did about the nation’s COVID-19 response, which has faded as a primary concern for many people, despite a persistent and deadly omicron outbreak.

In early 2020, Bloomfield rose from relative obscurity to become a household name as he stood alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern day after day to face TV cameras and talk New Zealanders through the nation’s pandemic response, which began with border closures and lockdowns and later evolved to vaccination drives and containment measures.

For many New Zealanders, especially early in the pandemic, Bloomfield’s measured, science-based responses to questions from reporters offered comfort during a time of spiraling uncertainty.

He was celebrated as New Zealand found initial success in eliminating the virus entirely and living life as normal while most other countries faced growing outbreaks. People wrote songs about him and emblazoned his image on coffee mugs and dish towels.

One of his most memorable moments was not something he said but his understated reaction — a slight grin and raise of his eyebrows — when then COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins comically misspoke about exercising outdoors, saying people could go “spread their legs.”

But as New Zealand inevitably experienced virus outbreaks, the reaction to Bloomfield became more mixed — and political. Some called for greater freedoms and an end to measures like vaccine mandates that Bloomfield had endorsed.

Bloomfield has talked publicly about the stress and anxiety he felt facing the media, especially early in the pandemic. Health officials said Wednesday’s media briefing was the 307th he’d given since the pandemic began.

Bloomfield said he had no regrets about the health advice he’d given, even though it had changed as the evidence about the virus had changed, forcing officials to stay humble. He said one lesson had been that citizens were the biggest healthcare workforce.

“We tend to underestimate the capability and capacity and resourcefulness of our communities,” Bloomfield said. “And, in fact, providing them with the resources and the information to get on and do the right thing can lead to enormous success.”

Ardern said Bloomfield had achieved many successes as director-general of health but would be particularly remembered for the “incredible and important” role he played in getting New Zealanders through the pandemic. She said the government’s science-based approach had put Bloomfield in the spotlight.

“He was quite central to the response,” she said. “That may have caused him to be in the fray more than he otherwise would have been, but he handled it with such grace and professionalism.”

When asked about his plans for the future, Bloomfield was giving nothing away.

“Lunch,” he said, to laughter. “And after Saturday, a jolly good break.”

As he walked out of his final media conference, dozens of his staff, who had surreptitiously gathered, gave him a standing ovation.

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