Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield poses during a portrait session at Parliament on April 12, 2020 in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images
To many Kiwis, the description of Sir Ashley Bloomfield as a “mild-mannered healthcare hero” who helped save tens of thousands of lives during the Covid pandemic is accurate.
For others, he’s nothing less than a civil service superhero, with many fans starting Facebook pages in his honour and proudly wearing Dr Ashley Curve Crusher T-shirts.
But as Bloomfield talks to the Weekly from Geneva, Switzerland, he looks nothing like the man who addressed the nation most days, telling us what we needed to do to stay safe during Covid.
“We’ve been doing some family holiday over here and that included a decent eight-day walking trip in the Swiss Alps, which we finished a couple of days ago,” he says.
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The family of five spent a year in Geneva in 2011 when Bloomfield worked for the World Health Organisation (WHO), so it is familiar territory for them.
“Two of our children are travelling around Europe at the moment because they’re of that age, and we brought the third over so they all enjoyed a visit back to their old house of 12 years ago and really enjoyed being back in Geneva.”
Bloomfield is relaxed, funny and by his own admission enjoying his new life after he left his position as director general of health in July last year.
“It wasn’t until I actually stepped away from the role that I realised how much I was holding in my head,” he reflects. “Within 24 hours, the pressure of the whole Covid experience disappeared. It was like we had a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but we didn’t have the box with the picture on it to help us. So we were assembling it day by day as new information came in and I was holding all that in my head. Then suddenly I didn’t have to. That was a lovely thing and a great relief.”
He may also be looking so relaxed because he’s recently become the ambassador for Pause Breathe Smile (PBS), which is a mindfulness programme available to all kura, primary and intermediate schools throughout New Zealand. It will help children develop skills to cope with anxiety and worry, which is showing up as a global phenomenon in teenagers.
“The underlying issue is improving the mental and physical wellbeing of children and young people,” explains Bloomfield. “And we’ve got this global phenomenon at the moment, especially in high-income developed countries, of increasing prevalence of mental health issues with children and young people.
“There are various theories on what might be behind it, but certainly events like Covid won’t be helping at all. They will have amplified and perhaps compounded the issue. I see PBS as an opportunity and because I’m from public health, I see this as an opportunity for prevention.”
He says giving primary school-aged children skills that are going to set them up for life is a great idea.
“Mindfulness is something a number of the members of my family use and have used for several years, and it’s about being present, being reflective and just taking the time out,” he says. “The PBS programme has also been developed in New Zealand, and so it’s got a real Kiwi flavour to it.”
Bloomfield says his wife Libby had been trying to get him to do mindfulness for years.
“I call myself an active relaxer,” he laughs. “But my wife meditates every day and she does a yoga routine most days. That’s her way of doing things. She’s always been encouraging me to do it and finally she said, ‘If you’re going to be an ambassador for this programme, you need to do it, and you need to practise what you preach.’”
Bloomfield says he started doing the programme and found real benefit from it.
“I’m just taking that time and sometimes it’s only five or 10 minutes just to slow down, to really sit still, to pause and be in the moment. And especially at the start of the day, it’s like a reset for the day. Instead of going for a run and a coffee like I used to do, I add a little bit of just being present. You can teach an old dog new tricks, apparently.”
As part of his due diligence before accepting his ambassador position, Bloomfield got Libby’s opinion because she had just completed five years in a local school doing pastoral care.
“She looked at a whole range of different initiatives and programmes, and this was one she had looked at, done the training for and felt it was a really good programme,” he says. “She’s got a very curious mind and I respect that.”
Ashley also looked at the evidence around the PBS programme, which had been implemented in some of our schools already. It was developed in 2013 by mindfulness expert Grant Rix with input from a range of experts in education, mental health, mātauranga Māori, psychology and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
“It’s been tested and evaluated in New Zealand and it’s shown to produce the benefits we are seeking. It helps kids be calmer, it improves their learning and it sets them up with skills they can use outside the school setting.”
Recently, Bloomfield spent some time at a school which had been practising the mindfulness programme for four years, “before it became fashionable”.
He tells: “Just spending a couple of hours in that classroom around these children and seeing the result was fantastic, not only for the children but the teachers as well.”
Bloomfield says the programme also aligns with his own values.
“Having spent my entire career in the publicly funded healthcare system, I wanted to make sure that those delivering the programme were good people, and Southern Cross, who are funding this, are great people.”
With a career spanning 30 years in the health field, Bloomfield knows there is not a simple solution to the global problem of anxiety in our teenagers.
“Our lives are pretty complex,” he reflects. “Younger people are living their lives with the wonderful adventure and resource that is the internet, but having devices and access to that information has its shadow side as well.
“I think there’s no doubt that the relentless access to information through social media platforms, the pushing of the news, views, information, myths and disinformation does create an overload.”
Bloomfield says he feels this himself and he knows people are doing research on this topic because that information overload could be contributing to an elevated, heightened level of stress and anxiety.
“I do think that has something to do with it. And the reason I do is that it’s been seen that it’s not unique to New Zealand – it’s a global phenomenon in countries where kids have access to these devices. So, I think one of the things we need to do is be honest about that.
“And if we do find this is an issue, to be really thoughtful at the end about the response. Because the obligation is on all of us – on adults, on parents, on schools, on policy makers and on politicians to take appropriate action. But there’s no doubt we need to do something about it.”
Bloomfield has also been no stranger to the power of the internet to voice thoughts and opinions, which are against the work he did for our country during Covid.
“I’m very proud of what we achieved and I was part of a team that did that. But Twitter seems to have gone a little downhill over the last six or 12 months and there’s still this small group of people out there that think either the whole Covid thing was nonsense or that New Zealand did a terrible job.
“But I know from my work internationally, and seeing people here in Geneva, there’s not a day that goes by when people don’t ask me how we did it, and affirm the approach we took and the way we went about it.”
Bloomfield says he certainly didn’t expect to be working long hours for days on end handling a Covid response as the director general of health.
“I should have read the fine print on my contract,” he jokes. “But everyone had to do quite extraordinary things – and it was an extraordinary time – and it’s nice now to be through the worst of it. Covid is still with us, but it’s nice to be able to focus on other things.”
Those “other things” for him are his new job as head of the newly created Public Policy Impact Institute at the University of Auckland.
In Geneva, he is co-chairing a process that involves all 194 member countries of the WHO.
“It’s a big piece of work around the International Health Regulations and updating those. It’s rewarding, it’s challenging and it’s nice not to be in the thick of it any more, as the saying goes.”
Bloomfield says during Covid, New Zealanders had to do things we never imagined we would do.
“So, it’s nice that in our lives, we can move about and we can see people we want, whether it’s at home or abroad,” he enthuses. “That’s a lovely, lovely thing.”