Meet the Minister: Ayesha Verrall – diagnosing pandemic lessons and new challenges

Ayesha Verrall

Minister of Seniors, Food Safety
Associate Minister of Health and Research, Science and Innovation
Aged 41, MP for Labour, elected 2020
Referendums: For the End of Life Choice Act, For legalising recreational
Fascinating fact: A Meryl Streep fan, but not of musicals, so you probably won’t catch her staying up late to watch Mamma Mia.

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Invercargill, and grew up in Te Anau in the National Park down there. My parents were both school teachers, but we spent weekends and after school time in the outdoors – you know, tramping, swimming, kayaking, that sort of thing. My mum’s from the Maldives Islands, so I’ve spent a little bit of time there over summer holidays while I was a kid.

Q: And tell me a bit where your name comes from.
It’s from my maternal grandmother, mum’s mum. She’s from the Maldives and died of typhoid when my mum was just 2 years’ old. We think it was typhoid, but back then it would have been really hard to tell.

During my childhood, I heard lots of stories about how infectious diseases affect families. Mum would be on islands that would have cholera outbreaks, she had malaria every summer, [and] her playmate got leprosy. All of those stories were part of, I guess, the background of my childhood, even though I grew up in Southland. And so that’s where my interest in infectious diseases grew from.

Q: And did you then go on to study infectious diseases?
I went to medical school. I actually wasn’t the best student at microbiology, and it was as a junior doctor working in Wellington Hospital, where I met people with HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis … often people with infectious diseases struggle with the illness, and also struggle a lot with coming forward for care, because of stigma. That’s where I felt I was able to make a difference.

Q: How would you describe yourself?
Well, obviously, I’m quite a structured thinker. I feel like I’m relying on those skills a lot at the moment … but I think when you get to know me, we’ll have a good time.

Q: Does it feel a little funny to suddenly be addressed as minister?
In my last job at Wellington Hospital, the nurses would quite often just call me ‘love’ – so it’s been a big change. I just try and focus on what I’m here to do and be humble and keep both my feet firmly on the ground.

Q: You have a 7-year-old daughter. Is there a little bit of grief that you’ll get to spend less time with her now?
Yeah, I mean, home life’s always been busy for me as a doctor. Doing the juggle that all working parents have to do has just become especially more important now. I try to make sure I have time blocked out to take her to her netball games on the weekend, and things like that. I just have to make sure I really prioritise that.

Q: From day one, the spotlight’s been on you, first from your high list ranking, to now being catapulted into Cabinet. What brings you to this place?
A lot of really similar reasons as to why I started in medicine: The motivation to help and make a difference. The pandemic revealed to me that so many of the things we need to do to create good healthcare in New Zealand relies on government, and that’s why I’m here.

Q: Your first reaction when the Prime Minister told you about your spot in Cabinet?
It was on the phone and I think my first word was, ‘Oh, wow’. But you know, you very quickly realise the responsibility you’re being asked to fulfil and I started thinking practically about how we’d make it work.

Q: Looking across all your portfolios, what are your top three priorities?
In the associate health space, one of the important things is to work on our progress towards Smokefree 2025. If we can succeed in that, we’ll be able to save maybe 5000 lives a year. That means a lot to me.

In the Seniors portfolio, we want to set up a Seniors Commissioner, which will be someone who advocates on seniors’ issues publicly and can also investigate and report on things.

I think the third one would also be in seniors … a particular area that needs focus is dementia care and we need to make sure we’re improving that across the country too.

Q: Is Smokefree 2025 a reasonable target? Will it happen?
That all comes down to what we do about it. What I’m working on with the [Health] Ministry now is to present a set of measures that will get us as close to that goal as we can. If we keep doing the same thing, we definitely won’t make it, so we need to present a new and bold plan that will be able to get us there.

Q: What do you think makes a good minister?
The ability to make decisions. You have to make a lot of them and everyday so if you can’t make a quick decision, you easily get bogged down.

Q: Do you feel like that’s a strength you bring to the role?
It reminds me of medicine, actually. On your standard medical ward round you go meet 20 people and make five decisions about each of them. Obviously, the considerations are different and I’m still new in the job. I feel like I can take decisions quickly on many things, but I do also seek additional advice on some of them to make sure I’m on the right track.

Q: How do you cope with pressure?
I run. I’m a jogger, so I find it’s really important to keep doing that. I generally get in a long run on Sundays and I’m trying to run to work.

Q: What is your favourite beach and why?
Oreti Beach in Southland. It’s south-facing, moody and isolated.

Q: Your best holiday?
I love being down in Fiordland. Five years ago we walked the Milford Track, me and my partner, and my sister and her husband. That was just the best, really.

Q: If you could take an actor to dinner, who would it be and where would you take them?
Gosh, um, Meryl Streep and somewhere everyone would see. She’s got that amazing ability to perform every accent under the sun and it’s an amazing skill isn’t it? She’s so good at her craft.

Q: Are you a fan of musicals? Mamma Mia?
I am not a fan of musicals.

Q: So when Meryl Streep is in a musical…
That is a difficult question.

Q: Some quick-fires… KFC or Maccas?
You should always choose healthy options and I think McDonald’s has some.
Q: Wine or beer
Q: Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate?
Q: Tramping or skiing
Q: Dog or cat?
Q: Tennis or cricket
Q: Instagram or Twitter?

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