On the director general of health’s last day in the job, he speaks to Stewart Sowman-Lund about his emotions leaving the role – and why he never felt comfortable fronting the media.
Ashley Bloomfield became one of the most familiar faces of New Zealand’s Covid-19 pandemic by fronting no fewer than 307 media briefings between January 2020 and this Wednesday. For many his presence at the daily 1pm updates provided a sense of comfort and reassurance. But if he appeared calm and collected behind the lectern, on the inside he was feeling anything but.
“I was very nervous at number one and still nervous at number 307,” he tells The Spinoff. “I know when I have a day with a stand-up or a media round because I wake up at 3 in the morning and start rehearsing it in my mind, even now. I still get butterflies, I still get stressed.”
Today is Bloomfield’s last day in the role of director general of health, a post he has held since mid-2018. He won’t need to front another 1pm presser or stand alongside the prime minister in the Beehive theatrette ever again. Bloomfield’s leaving a year earlier than expected, in the same month New Zealand transfers to a new health system, but ostensibly to spend time with his family. He’s planning a lengthy holiday and isn’t prepared to announce anything more just yet – though confirms he’s had work offers come in already.
On the day I chat to Bloomfield, he’s been up since the early hours doing back-to-back media interviews. He probably has nothing new to say to me, and as I attempt to weasel out some sort of “exclusive angle” during this decidedly non-exclusive interview opportunity, I learn just how diplomatic Bloomfield can be. For someone who has “ruled out” a run at political office, his ability to say “what I would say” rather than simply answer the question is nothing short of impressive.
Was he sad to be leaving the director general role? Neither yes or no, he tells me. “My overwhelming emotion is probably bittersweetness,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the break, but I’m not looking forward to leaving the building and the people here.” What books did he read during the first lockdown to help take his mind off things? “I’m a pretty keen reader of both fiction and non-fiction,” he says. “I often like to get immersed in a good novel.”
But despite Bloomfield’s incredible ability to avoid taking a side even on his reading preferences, our chat reveals some intriguing details of his time as New Zealand’s most prominent Covid communicator. Getting nervous before all 307 of his media press conferences is one example. “I guess it was just part of my mental preparation, I’d start while I was supposed to be sleeping,” he says. “The 3am ‘conversations with yourself’ is by far the worst time of the day to do that… but knowing I had a stand-up or an interview, you’ve got to be on the top of your game and make sure the way you’re communicating is always on point.”
That ability to communicate “on point” is part of the reason Bloomfield developed such a devoted fanbase. His face ended up on merchandise, a remixed video of him explaining Covid rules played to thousands of revellers at summer festivals up and down the country, and the 1pm press conferences were immortalised on IMDB. He was, though he cringes at the term, a celebrity. “I didn’t have any control over that,” says Bloomfield. “Especially through that first lockdown, those daily stand-ups were such an important part of people’s lives. Many people felt that I became a part of their family from being in their living room on the TV at 1pm every day. People recognised me and felt I was someone that they knew.”
As an alumnus of Wellington’s Scots College, Bloomfield is now up against Steven Adams for the title of the school’s most famous ex-pupil. The pair haven’t crossed paths, though Bloomfield says he’d love for that to happen. “I’d need to take a ladder with me,” he jokes, letting slip that he recently watched – and loved – the Adam Sandler basketball movie Hustle on Netflix.
Though Bloomfield’s profile faded slightly as last year’s delta outbreak dragged on and the simple alert level system devolved into the confusing assortment of rules we have now, as director general he remained largely untouchable. Take last year, when ex-National leader Judith Collins called Bloomfield a “one-trick pony”, almost causing a political crisis. Or when the former health minister David Clark threw Bloomfield under the bus for a quarantine bungle. Bloomfield says he couldn’t let these things get him down. “I’m a senior public servant and even when there’s not a pandemic you have some really challenging moments. I tried not to take those ups and downs too personally but keep things in perspective and stay grounded,” he says.
Bloomfield may have avoided letting personal remarks get in the way of his job, but he admits it wasn’t always easy to separate his work and private life. At one point, he very nearly burnt out. “I had moments where I realised I was at the limits of my resilience and needed to take some time out and spend time with family… ripping down a hill on a mountain bike or reading a book,” he says.
Not letting work get in the way of everything was a “big lesson” that Bloomfield quickly learnt in the early days of the pandemic. “Resilient people aren’t the people that keep going, they’re the ones that know their boundaries and stay within them,” he says. “Quite early on after I’d done a number of days in a row, I felt myself under a lot of stress and thought now was the time to step back. It was a real wake-up call for me, it was deliberate after that to make sure I didn’t reach the point where I burnt out.”
Whatever Bloomfield does next, it’s unlikely he’ll face the same intense scrutiny he did as director general of health during a global pandemic. A number of job offers are already on the table, but he won’t divulge anything just yet. And despite his masterful ability to avoid giving a straight answer, Bloomfield remains sure of one thing: now is the right time to say goodbye.