Ashley Bloomfield: questions and answers

University of Auckland alumnus Dr Ashley Bloomfield has become a household name for his work in helping 'crush the curve'. He answers a few questions for his alma mater.

Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield
Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo: Mark Coote

What helped you in this important role?
I have great confidence in the people I work with. Coming into the Ministry I was able to build a great team and we’ve spent time learning about each other and how we can fulfil our potential not just as individual leaders but as a team. As each ‘curve ball’ arrived, the value of that investment has shown, as New Zealand faced its greatest challenge in decades. The intensity and pace of the response was hugely challenging. We had to provide advice to inform major decisions with incomplete information and in a rapidly evolving situation. It’s unlike anything you can plan for.

How did you develop communication skills?
I’ve always quite enjoyed public speaking, and like to watch good speakers and learn from them. I also tuck away phrases and quotes that help to tell a story clearly. Like all skills though, practice makes perfect. The format of the daily TV stand-ups – providing up-to-date, clear and transparent information – really resonated with people. It did require good preparation and focus, so I relished the odd day when I got a break.

Who has the most influence in a pandemic, the government or Director-General of Health?
The government ultimately makes the big decisions. But the Director-General role has significant statutory powers and some of these were exercised for the first time ever. It was a notice issued by the DG that provided the legal basis for isolating all incoming travellers, restrictions on gathering size, requiring people to stay at home and other measures under Alert Level 4.

Were we well prepared for this pandemic?
Yes, we had an up-to-date pandemic plan that had been tested and a range of other measures in place. But we also had to adapt and adjust very quickly as we saw what was happening in other countries and as the scientific evidence started to emerge. So, you can have a good plan but it’s no replacement for good advice, rapid decision-making and good governance.

Ashley Bloomfield’s face appeared on ‘Curve Crusher’ merchandise
Ashley Bloomfield’s face appeared on ‘Curve Crusher’ merchandise designed by The Bold and sold as part of campaign to raise funds for Women’s Refuge.

We had to provide advice to inform major decisions with incomplete information and in a rapidly evolving situation. It’s unlike anything you can plan for.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield Director-General of Health

You’re a specialist in non-communicable diseases (NCDs). When did you move into communicable diseases?
NCDs is still my area of interest and expertise, but public health training also involves managing communicable diseases. With the measles outbreak in 2019, I was able to draw on my experience as a public health medicine registrar at Auckland Regional Public Health Service when the previous big measles outbreak occurred there. The core science of public health is epidemiology, which is relevant whatever the disease.

What drew you to a role in public health?
Partly a process of elimination, partly interest in the core concepts. Once I had started my Masters in Public Health at Auckland, I found my eyes opened to many different ways of looking at society and health; that got me hooked.

Did you enjoy your time at the University?
Greatly. After three years at medical school, I took a year off to travel. I came back refreshed and joined another year group, so I have two cohorts of medical school friends – including my (now) wife Libby who was in the year group I joined after the break. I’m still in touch with them through work and outside of work.

You spent time working for the WHO as a partnerships adviser. What did that involve?
I had a fantastic year at the WHO in Geneva in 2011 working on NCDs and we were living just across the border in France. The work environment was completely different from New Zealand and I learned a lot of new skills – including international diplomacy. Our family has very fond memories of the time there.

In a ‘normal’ situation, what are your preferred pastimes?
My No 1 relaxation activity is spending time at our bach in St Arnaud (Lake Rotoiti). As a family we enjoy New Zealand’s fantastic wilderness as often as possible whether it’s skiing, tramping or biking. I have a group of local friends I’ve mountain biked with for many years and, in addition to our local rides, we get away a couple of times a year for a trip.

What have you taken out of this experience?
At a health forum we convened last year, I heard the best-ever definition of leadership from one of the disability advocates who presented: “Leadership is an invitation to collective action.” I simply can’t think of a time and place where this is more relevant.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2020 edition of Ingenio magazine.