Alumni engagement and philanthropy


14 April 2020                                                                                                                                                         Photo courtesy of New Zealand Doctor

One of the most public faces on television in New Zealand during the current COVID-19 crisis is County Antrim born Queen’s medical graduate, Caroline McElnay, chair of the Pandemic Influenza Technical Advisory Group.

Dr McElnay grew up near Bushmills, County Antrim and attended nearby Coleraine High School, where she was said to have ‘enjoyed science’ and, as a result, ‘fell into medicine’. Her interest in public health started during her time as a medical student at Queen’s where she graduated with an MB BCh BAO (1984), before moving to the University of Manchester to take an MSc in Public Health (1990).

Giving credit to the medical education she received at Queen's when in touch with her alma mater this week, Dr McElnay said: "I was one of those rare medical students who developed a passion for public health in 4th year - which shows the impact that inspirational teachers can have.

"Subsequent jobs were all focused on what I needed to do to get on the specialist training programme and I got my first consultant position in Manchester shortly after my 30th birthday.

"My current job is the culmination of my career and I’m so privileged to be in this role - in spite of COVID19," she added.

During her Master’s degree Dr McElnay completed a year-long exchange in New Zealand, including six months in Napier, a coastal city on the country’s North Island. While there she met her future husband, Giles Pearson, and although they initially returned to the UK, in 1995 he persuaded her that New Zealand – and Hawke's Bay in particular – might be a better place to put down roots.

Returning to Napier, she was subsequently appointed Director of Population Health for Hawke's Bay District Health Board on the east coast. While there, Dr McElnay was involved in responses to a major gastro outbreak, the first case of the SARs in New Zealand and a listeria epidemic. In 2014 she published a major report on health inequity in the area.

Serving as President of the NZ College of Public Health when she was appointed to the Ministry of Health in 2016 – a Presidency she continued in until her term finished – she moved into the Wellington public service post at the end of February the following year.

A key statutory role, the Director of Public Health advises on public health, including those aspects of personal wellbeing that impact on public health and on regulatory matters that relate to the area.

As Director in the current crisis, Dr McElnay counsels the Ministry and the country’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. And with barely a hint of a Northern Ireland accent, she can often be seen – and heard – giving lengthy daily media briefings and answering questions on all matters concerning the control of coronavirus in her adopted home country.

The Pandemic Influenza Technical Advisory Group which she currently chairs brings together 11 of the country's leading experts on public health and infectious diseases.

New Zealand has been in ‘lockdown’ since 26 March, with all non-essential businesses closed, including bars, restaurants and cinemas. Schools are also shut and all indoor and outdoor events are banned.

At present the country, which has a population of 4.7m, has confirmed just over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 with deaths still (14 April) in single figures. New Zealand’s ‘elimination’ strategy, with escalated levels of physical distancing culminating in full national lockdown just over a fortnight ago, differs from the ‘mitigation’ approach adopted by many western countries and, statistically, appears to be working.  

Speaking to Mike Milotte in the Irish Times (09 April), Dr McElnay said: “We haven’t seen the rapid escalation of cases seen in so many other countries because we went into lockdown earlier, before we had significant numbers of cases.

“Our advantage is that we are an island nation, so we can have strict border controls and that is really helpful.

“No training can really prepare you for what it’s actually like…this is the ultimate challenge for anyone working in public health”.

Dr McElnay has served as a board member of Sport Hawke's Bay and on the board of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, an organisation that provides a range of free services aimed at improving the wellbeing of children under the age of five.

Caroline and Giles are parents to three children – Caitriona, Roisin and Connor.  

For more information about research and initiatives being carried out at Queen's University Belfast in response to the coronavirus, visit:

During the COVID-19 crisis, the Development and Alumni Relations Office is endeavouring to remain in contact with the University’s graduates and donors, and to promote online networking initiatives, to keep Queen’s alumni and supporters connected.

For general enquiries about this story or to submit a graduate news item, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO), Queen’s University Belfast, on telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.

Main photo credit: New Zealand Doctor  


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