December 18, 2020

New Zealand owes pandemic success to one of our own

Contributed by Liam Kernaghan

For no other reason – and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty – we will remember 2020 as the year many thousands of pipers and drummers could not descend onto Glasgow Green for the World Pipe Band Championships. Not since the World Wars have pipers not competed for the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medals at the Argyllshire Gathering or the Northern Meetings. It would have been unimaginable this time last year for anyone to claim we would go an entire season without RSPBA major championships.

New Zealand’s Director General of Health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. [Photo Mark Mitchell]
And while many around the world are still grappling with new waves of COVID-19, including our friends across the ditch in New South Wales, New Zealand is looking forward to a summer of music festivals, long days at the beach, and piping and drumming events right up and down the country.

New Zealand is, by most measures, incredibly fortunate. We are essentially COVID-19 free (barring managed isolation and quarantine cases returning from overseas), and any cases that do appear in the community are isolated relatively quickly. We also have benefits other countries do not – we are an isolated island nation far away from other countries, we live more disparately than many other developed nations. Our apparent desire to acquiesce to power and control in the face of the global pandemic meant our adherence to lockdown rules was almost unquestioned.

The success of New Zealand’s response is, in part, attributable to one of our own from the piping and drumming world.

By way of a disclaimer here, I ran for parliament this year for the major opposition party against the current New Zealand Government. I wouldn’t recommend the idea of running against potentially the most popular prime minister in the world today. It is worse than drawing first on a wet and chilly Glasgow Green day. While there are many valid criticisms of the New Zealand response and, at the time of writing, a major report commissioned by the government has come out scathing of New Zealand’s planned long term response, I can acknowledge the response has mostly meant New Zealand has been more successful than many of our friends in the Commonwealth and across the world.

So it will come as no surprise to you that the success of New Zealand’s response is, in part, attributable to one of our own from the piping and drumming world.

Liam Kernaghan (left) with former bass drummer and New Zealand’s Director-General of Health, Dr. Ashley Bromfield.

Dr. Ashley Bloomfield is New Zealand’s Director-General of Health. He has been responsible for New Zealand’s public health system since 2018. Alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, he is deified as being critical to the success of our response. He became the “public face” of the crisis when the actual Minister of Health breached New Zealand’s lockdown rules three times and resigned his warrant.

Dr. Bloomfield attended Scots College Wellington in the 1970s and 1980s and was the Head Prefect and dux, played 1st XV rugby and was a member of the cast of the college’s production of Oklahoma!

He was also a bass drummer in the Scots College Pipe Band. He did not continue with his pipe band career after Scots College, but his family’s involvement has. His two sons, Matt and Tom, have both played with the Scots College, and, most recently, Matt went to play with the Grade 2 Scottish Society of New Zealand Pipe Band based in Christchurch.

Having spent a lot of my career in Wellington and around the public service, it is unusual (for New Zealand anyway) that I have only met Dr. Bloomfield twice, and both times in the last week. One of them was at an end of year party for members of parliament, journalists and guests. He had been speaking at an event before the party but showed up and was instantly the centre of attention. I introduced myself and, rather than talk about politics like everyone else wanted to, I mentioned I had taught his son Matt at one of our RNZPBA Summer Schools one year. He instantly beamed at the opportunity to talk about bagpipes and pipe bands, and we spent a long time just talking about our experiences and what piping and pipe bands meant for us. It was a privilege, and he feels a strong affinity for our movement. Long may that continue.

One of the final significant events held in New Zealand that Dr. Bloomfield attended was the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships in Invercargill. The competition was the week before New Zealand instigated Alert Levels and lockdown provisions. Although he had no official involvement with the event, I understand there was hesitancy about the massed bands at the end of the event. The clusters were emerging throughout the south of the South Island. In some respects, we are lucky there were no cases associated with the event that drew bands from Australia and the United States.

It was probably this weekend where many of us in the New Zealand piping and pipe band community felt genuinely privileged to have the ability to compete and do what we love.

The second one was at our recent Palmerston North Square Day. He watched his son Tom compete with the Scots College Pipe Band and was pulled aside by Libby O’Brien and Courtney Williamson for a brief chat on the live stream. It was one of the rare days Dr. Bloomfield has taken off during the year, but again it was a privilege to have him attend a pipe band event and take a keen interest in what we were doing. It was probably this weekend where many of us in the New Zealand piping and pipe band community felt genuinely privileged to have the ability to compete and do what we love.

Dr. Ashley Bromfield being interviewed by Libby O’Brien (left) and Courtney Williamson for the live broadcast of the Palmerston North Square Day competitions.

New Zealand is lucky that we have been able to hold in-person competitions. We have celebrated the online successes of Dr. Brendon Eade and Campbell Wilson throughout 2020. Still, as we finish this year, we can celebrate the fact we have held the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships, the New Zealand Open Solo Piping Championships, our annual Commun na Piobaireachd competitions, at least three major pipe band events and, without wanting to jinx anything, we are on track to hold the annual New Year’s Day solo contest at Waipu, centre championships throughout New Zealand and then our 2021 New Zealand Pipe Band Championships in Napier.

And all of that, in large part, is due to one of our own.

Liam Kernaghan is a rising star in world solo piping. A frequent contributor to pipes|drums, he’s already won most of the major awards in his home country of New Zealand, as well as many prizes in Australia and Scotland, including the B-Grade Strathspeys & Reels at the 2018 Argyllshire Gathering. He lives in Dunedin, has worked for the federal government and ran as the National Party Candidate for the electorate of Taieri in the New Zealand parliament in the 2020 federal election.



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