Royal Commission of Inquiry into Covid response announced

December 5, 2022
A person getting tested for Covid-19.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has today announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand's Covid-19 response to prepare New Zealand for future pandemics, calling it "the right thing to do".

“Every country in the world has grappled with Covid-19 and there was no playbook for managing it," Ardern said today in a statement.

“It had been over 100 years since we experienced a pandemic of this scale, so it’s critical we compile what worked and what we can learn from it should it ever happen again."

She said while the country saw "fewer cases, hospitalisations and deaths than nearly any other country in the first two years of the pandemic", there "has undoubtedly been a huge impact on New Zealanders both here and abroad".

“A Royal Commission of Inquiry is the highest form of public inquiry and is the right thing to do, given the Covid-19 emergency was the most significant threat to the health of New Zealanders and our economy since World War II."

Cabinet has today approved the terms of reference for the Commission, which has been asked to investigate the overall response, including the economic response, identify what we can learn from it and how it can be applied to any future pandemic.

The independent Royal Commission will be chaired by Australia-based epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, along with former Cabinet Minister Hekia Parata and former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead.

"Professor Blakely’s understanding of public health is extensive. He has the knowledge and experience necessary to lead this work. Hekia Parata and John Whitehead will add expertise and bring useful perspectives on the economic response and the response for Māori," Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said.

She said the country's Covid response has been examined extensively both in New Zealand and overseas, generating 75 reviews and 1639 recommendations since 2020.

The Royal Commission will begin considering evidence from February 1, 2023 and conclude in mid-2024.

"A report will then be prepared which will help inform any future Government’s pandemic response," Tinetti said.

'A major fail' - ACT

ACT leader David Seymour said while the party welcomed the Royal Commission, which ACT had called for in May 2020, he was critical of the timing as "conveniently too late for the Commission to report before the election".

"Had they started nine months ago in March, it could have released a draft report, at least, before the campaign period," he said.

Seymour also criticised the scope of the terms of reference, saying it should should go further to consider questions such as whether the borders should have been closed earlier; whether the country's PPE stockpile was sufficient and distribution was well organised; and whether contact tracing and testing were adequate.

In addition, he said the terms of reference "explicitly rule out" the private sector, not pertaining to the delivery of services integral to the pandemic response.

"Considering the effects on education, business, and mental health is effectively ruled out from the get-go," he said.

"Like the whole pandemic response, these terms of reference are blind to the wider issues of human well-being. This is a major fail.

"Being unprepared for the first major pandemic in 100 years may be understandable but repeating our mistakes if it comes back next year is totally unacceptable."

Inquiry must be 'wide-ranging' - National

The National Party's Covid-19 spokesperson Dr Shane Reti said while the party welcomed the inquiry, it was "disappointed that other parties weren't consulted on the membership of the inquiry or the terms of reference, which appear to be limited".

Reti said a separate independent inquiry on its economic impact is "still needed to paint the full picture of the effects that Covid-19 had".

"It is critical that this inquiry is wide-ranging, independent and gets to the heart of the major decisions, actions and inactions of the Government," he said.

"New Zealand has a history of comprehensive Royal Commissions for significant matters of public concern, such as the Christchurch terror attack and the Pike River disaster.

"Given this history, and the extraordinary impact of Covid-19 on New Zealand, it is right that a Covid-19 Royal Commission is established."

Terms of reference 'deliberately narrow in scope' - Greens

The Green Party joined National and ACT in criticising the scope of the terms of reference, which the party's Covid-19 response spokesperson Teanau Tuiono called "deliberately narrow in scope and excludes the impact the Government's economic response had on inequality'.

He added that the terms of reference "also appear weak when it comes to the Māori and Pasifika".

"There is no doubt that Covid hit some communities far worse than others. We would like to see more focus on exactly what went wrong with the vaccine rollout in these communities," he said.

"This should also include the advice the Government received on the impact removing Covid restrictions would have on Māori, Pasifika, along with putting measures in place to support our immunocompromised and disabled whānau."

Tuiono said the country's Covid-19 response "needs to continue evolving as we will be living with the infection for many years to come".

"Preparing for the impacts of Covid over the summer needs to be a top priority for the Government in the short-term while also preparing for the long-term impacts of Long Covid."

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick added that the party had, like National, called for an inquiry into the economic response to Covid-19.

"The terms of reference released today fall short by focusing almost exclusively on the immediate economic pandemic response," she said.

"The Government and Reserve Bank had advice in early 2020 that showed an over-reliance on unconventional monetary policy would increase inequality. And yet, they pressed on and presided over one of the largest transfers of wealth we have ever seen.

"To fully understand the economic response, we need an inquiry that will look beyond the necessary immediacy of economic decisions - which undoubtedly kept people in jobs - into the consequences still being felt today."

Today is was revealed there were 34,528 new cases and 40 deaths linked to Covid-19 in the last week.