3 Nov 2020

Cabinet gets major shake-up with new Covid-19 Response portfolio in the mix

6:59 am on 3 November 2020

If it was a Covid election, this could be called a Covid Cabinet, with the pandemic having a big hand in the shape of the new ministerial line-up.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced a major shake-up of her top-ranking team, introducing seven new faces to the Cabinet table and six first-time ministers.

Chris Hipkins will take up the newly created role of Minister for Covid-19 Response and will oversee managed isolation, border defences and the health response - including testing and contract tracing.

While all other aspects of health will be the remit of the new minister Andrew Little, who will remain responsible for the country's spy agencies and Treaty negotiations.

Ardern said the government has two over-arching priorities - economic recovery and the Covid-19 health response, but she doesn't want that to overshadow the other big challenges in health.

"We need an absolute response and focus on Covid, but we also need an absolute focus on our health reforms."

Focusing on health reforms will be the job of Little, while Hipkins will lead the government's response to Covid-19.

"Covid-19 is a huge challenge. It'll be a challenge that'll be with us for some time yet and I'm very comfortable with continuing the lead on that work," Hipkins said.

Hipkins and Little plan to work together closely and over the next few days they will divvy up responsibilities including who will be accountable if something goes wrong.

"Whomever the minister is and whichever minister is responsible, there is always going to be a number of different departments and agencies that need to be involved in that and my job really will be to make sure that they're joining up and working together in the way that we need them to be," Hipkins said.

Hipkins is also keeping the hefty education portfolio and was asked if he's worried this will take a back seat if there's a Covid resurgence.

"No, not at all - and it hasn't done over the last four-and-a-half months that I've been doing both roles. I've still managed to keep the wheels moving in education. We've got a big reform programming happening in education and I'll obviously continue to be very vigilant about that."

Little is a safe pair of hands, but admits he's a little daunted by the health portfolio.

"The next couple of weeks is going to be reading, reading, reading," he said.

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Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

But he believed he has the skills to drive the necessary reforms across the sector.

"If we're thinking long term, we really have to drive change in the system because we know some populations are not getting the level of treatment and service they need.

"Taking hold of the Simpson report and now really starting to drive that change is going to be vital."

Covid-19 has also seen Labour freshman and infectious diseases expect Dr Ayesha Verrall parachuted straight into Cabinet.

This isn't the first time a first-time MP has moved straight into Cabinet, but it likely wouldn't have happened if the world wasn't in the middle of a pandemic.

"If you're a country and you're in the middle of a global pandemic and you have a doctor in infectious diseases, it would be wrong not to use that talent," Ardern said.

"My view also is that the best way to add value was around the Cabinet table. I didn't want to see a consultative role, I wanted a direct role for someone who can make an enormous difference to our response."

Verrall acknowledged the virus had played a part in her rise up the ranks.

"I'm eager to bring my expertise in that area to the government's response and sustaining what's been an incredibly successful response. I'm excited to be working with such experienced ministers in the health team," she said.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said there was some real fire power behind the government's new health line-up.

"I think identifying the Covid-19 response as a distinct portfolio, really signals very clearly the high priority the government's attaching to this.

"And the fact that in addition you're going to have the Minister of Health and Associate Minister of Health in Dr Verrall, really gives a lot of expertise in Cabinet."

Baker said continuity was key - and he's not concerned about Hipkins juggling the Covid-19 response and education.

Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton is pleased Covid-19 is no longer the responsibility of the Health Minister.

"Albeit a really important focus this year, it has sucked a lot of energy out of that portfolio, which is huge, and you know, there's a lot of other stuff going on in health that requires long-term focus," she said.

But ACT leader David Seymour is concerned the government risks becoming too focused on the health response.

"Ayesha Verrall's perspectives on public health have obvious value, unless of course they focus the government so much on the public health aspect that the government becomes myopic about the overall economic problem that it must solve," he said.

Seymour said the overall Cabinet line-up showed a serious skills shortage, with Ardern re-introducing David Clark and Meka Whaitiri back into the ministerial fold.

But soon-to-be Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson rejects that.

"I think we've proved, and the election proved, that New Zealanders believe that we are the right people to lead us through the recovery and rebuild. I actually think what the Cabinet shows is an extraordinary depth of talent."

National leader Judith Collins declined an interview - a spokesperson saying she had "nothing to say" about the line-up.

She will announce her shadow Cabinet once the special votes are counted.

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