Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

PoliticsDecember 5, 2022

NZ’s Covid-19 response to be investigated by Royal Commission of Inquiry

Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

Chaired by an Australian-based epidemiologist, the 18-month long Royal Commission will assess the success of New Zealand’s elimination strategy as well as looking to the future.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry will investigate New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 crisis – including our use of the elimination strategy – and help prepare us for any future pandemics.

Long-called for by both politicians and health experts, the government has revealed the inquiry will start considering evidence in February next year and report back about 18 months later, in mid-2024.

“Every country in the world has grappled with Covid-19 and there was no playbook for managing it,” said prime minister Jacinda Ardern. “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.”

The inquiry’s terms of reference state that it will look at “the overall response, including the economic response, identify what we can learn from it and how that can be applied to any future pandemic”. Crucially, it will also assess whether New Zealand’s initial elimination strategy and later minimisation strategy “were effective in limiting the spread of infection and limiting the impact of the virus on vulnerable groups and the health system”.

The inquiry will also examine: 

  • The legislative, regulatory, and operational settings required to support New Zealand’s public health response to a pandemic;
  • communication with, engagement of, and enabling people and communities to mobilise and act in support of both personal and community public health outcomes over an extended period;
  • the legislative, regulatory, and operational settings needed to ensure the continued supply of goods and services required to enable people to isolate or otherwise take protective measures for an extended period during a pandemic;
  • the legislative, regulatory, and operational settings required to support New Zealand’s immediate economic response to a future pandemic;
  • the decision-making structures and arrangements that might be used or put in place during an evolving pandemic of extended length;
  • consideration of the interests of Māori in the context of a pandemic, consistent with the Te Tiriti o Waitangi relationship; and 
  • consideration of the impact on, and differential support for, essential workers and populations and communities that may be disproportionally impacted by a pandemic.

Off the table are subjects including clinical decisions made by public health authorities and anything to do with vaccine efficacy. The use of vaccine mandates, however, will be within scope of the inquiry.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern talks to media on May 27, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Australian-based epidemiologist professor Tony Blakely will chair the inquiry alongside former cabinet minister Hekia Parata, minister of education in John Key’s National-led government, and ex-treasury secretary John Whitehead. 

Earlier this year, Blakely queried whether New Zealand’s cautious response to the then-surging omicron variant of Covid-19 could see our battle against the virus extended. “If you keep stamping it out for too long and you’ve got your population restrictions for too long and you don’t let omicron wash through in a timely manner, you could end up spending a lot of time doing those,” he told RNZ in February.

Internal affairs minister Jan Tinetti said Blakely and his team brought with them a unique set of skills – but more importantly, were independent of the government and its response to the pandemic. “Professor Blakely’s understanding of public health is extensive. He has the knowledge and experience necessary to lead this work,” Tinetti Said. “Hekia Parata and John Whitehead will add expertise and bring useful perspectives on the economic response and the response for Māori.”

She added: “New Zealand’s Covid-19 response has been heavily examined, both internationally and nationally. So far 75 reviews have been carried out within New Zealand since 2020, generating a total of 1,639 recommendations.”

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was the highest form of public inquiry, added Ardern, and in this situation it was “the right thing to do”.

“The Covid-19 emergency was the most significant threat to the health of New Zealanders and our economy since World War II,” the prime minister said.

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