Mountain bikers, cyclists and doctors around the country are divided over Health Minister David Clark’s drive to Dunedin’s Signal Hill in his sign-written van to go riding.
Clark has apologised to his boss Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for yesterday flouting the government’s lockdown rules of not driving to exercise and not undertaking risky activity.
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It comes as Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard defended his own road cycling in Wellington five days per week amid the lockdown, which he said are within the rules.
At today’s Covid-19 briefing Civil Defence Emergency Management director Sarah Stuart-Black reiterated the government’s position that vehicles should only be used for essential travel such as to the supermarket or for medical help.
Clark, a former Ironman, told the Herald although cycling on gravel tracks was one of his usual forms of exercise “these are not usual times”.
“Even though I deliberately opted for an easy, local track, on reflection I realise I should have chosen a better option such as walking, running or cycling on the flat.”
“I spoke to the Health Minister last night, who apologised to me,” she said in a statement.
“It’s my expectation that Ministers set the standards we are asking New Zealanders to follow.
“People can go outside to get fresh air and drive short distances if needed, but we have asked people to avoid activities where there is a higher risk of injury, and the Minister should have followed that guidance.”
Mountain Biking Otago president Kristy Booth said Clark was not a member of the club but she had seen him on the tracks at Signal Hill.
She was missing the sport but adhering to lockdown rules.
“I’m at home in full lockdown for four weeks. I haven’t left my property.”
On social media Clark came under fire from annoyed Kiwis who felt the MP for Dunedin North had a “Do as I say not as I do” attitude.
Clark drove 2.3km to The Emersons Big Easy trail during a gap in video conferencing calls.
Gerard Hyland wrote on Facebook: “He lives halfway up Signal Hill – cycling home would have added 15-20 minutes of solid cardio to his ride. He may not have had the time.”
But Nick Rutledge wrote: “It’s terrible messaging from the government”.
“We’re all expected to sacrifice and most of us are and then the person who is supposed to be leading by example basically gave everyone a licence to do whatever they want.
“That one act torched a lot of goodwill and if he isn’t sacked or reprimanded watch people stop complying with the rules.”
A doctor who spoke to the Herald anonymously said he had called on Clark to resign.
“I think driving that distance in your marked vehicle as the Minister of Health to go on a mountain biking expedition while under lockdown conditions doesn’t really seem to be taking it seriously, and I think it’s arrogant and dismissive of the government’s own conditions that it’s placing the rest of us under.”
However Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr Jon Bonning, a long-time cyclist and mountain biker who has discussed the shared passion with Clark previously, said he supported the Health Minister’s right to exercise.
“It needs to be done responsibly and within your bubble and within your neighbourhood.
“An individual like the Minister driving two kilometres and riding on a trail I don’t really have a problem with. I’d suggest it was not reckless.”
He said Clark was a competent rider and easy trail mountain biking was not dangerous.
“Exercise is incredibly important at this time in this situation.”
Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, who the Herald understands had to cut short a mountain biking trip in the South Island when Covid-19 was first confirmed in New Zealand, said physical activity was important for mental and physical wellbeing.
“… in particular cycling, is a great activity”. But he said it should be done so safely and locally.
A cyclist who rode with Clark at a University of Otago cycling club night some years ago said he understand the MP was a “decent club level rider in his university years”.
“I can understand the furore, but the same thing is happening everywhere. I live in Rotorua and people are driving with mountain bikes to ride on our local reserve.”
Rotorua Mountain Bike Club president Mat Hunt said he had told off one driver to the famous trails at Whakarewarewa Forest.
The club runs a First Response Unit where a paid paramedic patrols the forest for accidents.
The paramedic is now on call but in peak periods Hunt said there would be an average of one call a day – with some accidents serious. Since March 21 there had been no calls.
In Wellington well-known mountain biking haunt Makara Peak was closed to riders, and only open to walkers.