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Submissions to the Covid inquiry ended over the weekend (Image: The Spinoff)
Submissions to the Covid inquiry ended over the weekend (Image: The Spinoff)

SocietyMarch 27, 2024

Public submissions to the Covid inquiry closed on Sunday. What happens next?

Submissions to the Covid inquiry ended over the weekend (Image: The Spinoff)
Submissions to the Covid inquiry ended over the weekend (Image: The Spinoff)

About 11,000 people gave their thoughts during the consultation stage, which may mean the scope of the inquiry is broadened significantly.

What’s all this then?

Sunday marked the end of public submissions to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand’s Covid-19 response. It allowed members of the public to both put forward their own views on the Covid response, and provide feedback on whether the inquiry should be widened even further given coalition commitments made after the election.

Take me back a step – there’s an inquiry?

If you missed that this was happening, here’s the brief. In late 2022, then prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced a formal inquiry into the Covid-19 response in New Zealand. It wasn’t, however, specifically targeted at examining the rights and wrongs of how the pandemic was handled, but rather to look forward and see how lessons from Covid-19 could be applied to any future health crises. Formally launched last February, the inquiry was initially expected to be completed by the middle of this year. At the time, Ardern said the inquiry would look at the economic response along with decisions around border closures, isolation and quarantine. It would also look at the government’s elimination strategy.

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

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

Jacinda Ardern speaks to media ahead of the nationwide lockdown on March 25, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

What’s changed since?

Remember when we had an election? The change of government in October meant the brakes were put on the Covid Inquiry in order to take into account proposed changes by the new coalition of National, Act and New Zealand First. Crucially, New Zealand First had requested a secondary, “independent” inquiry into the pandemic response which would include looking at “the use of multiple lockdowns” along with “vaccine procurement and efficacy”. 

In December last year, former National minister Hekia Parata resigned as a commissioner. It was also reported the Royal Commission had delayed public submissions until this year. “Given the scope and terms of reference of the inquiry may change, we’ve made the decision to delay public submissions until early 2024. We believe this delay will avoid any confusion for those who want to share their Covid-19 experiences with us,” commission chair Tony Blakely said.

Commissioner John Whitehead and former commissioner Hekia Parata (Image: Archi Banal)

In February this year it was confirmed that the government would look to widen the scope of the Inquiry and opened public consultation on this. People were asked to have their say on expanding the scope to include, among other things, the use of lockdowns, vaccine efficacy and whether the government’s response was consistent with the rule of law. 

At the time, internal affairs minister Brooke van Velden said that the terms of reference were decided by the same government responsible for the Covid-19 response which placed significant limits on what the inquiry could consider. “New Zealanders deserve a frank assessment of what occurred and how we can learn from it,” she added.

What’s been heard so far?

In February, commission chair Tony Blakely said that a “vital part” of the Inquiry had been hearing from New Zealanders about their Covid-19 experiences and their thoughts on how our country could plan for future pandemics. 

“We are honoured to hear your stories and receive your contributions to the work of the Inquiry, and my thanks to everyone who has shared their experiences with the Inquiry so far. The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on all of us, and we know that sharing your stories can be difficult or upsetting,” Blakely said.

There has also been “direct engagement” in parts of the country, including in Northland earlier this year. “Te Tai Tokerau had a different – many would say more challenging – experience of Covid-19 to other parts of Aotearoa New Zealand, and hearing from iwi, businesses, health and education providers, and the local council about this experience was incredibly valuable,” said Blakely.

How many submissions were received?

Van Velden said there were 11,000 public submissions received through the Royal Commission’s online consultation portal at the time of closing. 

“It is clear that this government is responding to a real need in the community to ensure their voices are heard on the matters relating to the pandemic that affected them the most.”

Commission chair Tony Blakely said that the Inquiry heard nearly 13,000 stories of the pandemic from its public submissions process. “We have heard how people were impacted by lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and border closures,” Blakely said. “Many people have also shared the impact the pandemic had on their health and wellbeing, for example.”

And who submitted?

Obviously we can’t be certain who did submit, however some groups have in recent weeks been encouraging their supporters to make their voices heard. This includes Reality Check Radio, the online media network founded by conspiracy group Voices for Freedom, which paid for a full page ad in the Sunday Star Times last weekend. 

“Did your health suffer after the Covid shot?” read the ad, with an image of a man clutching his chest. It urged people to add their name to “the people’s terms” – a list of specific requests backed by Reality Check Radio. Those requests include the removal of the current commissioners and replacement of all existing commission staff, public live streamed hearings, and an investigation into vaccine safety and vaccine injuries.

The bottom of the ad read “this website is created by Reality Check Radio. It is not the official Covid-19 Inquiry website.” According to Reality Check Radio, the people’s terms would be provided to both the Royal Commission and the government before the end of the consultation period.

The Reality Check Radio print ad

Another group that encouraged support via its own online form was the Free Speech Union, which asked people to visit their own “submission tool”. This used branding similar to the official Covid-19 response, including yellow and black stripes, but was not affiliated with the commission. 

It’s not known how many people submitted via these groups, or how these groups submitted to the commission at all. The Free Speech Union, however, said “thousands” had used their submission tool to engage with the Inquiry.

Is an inquiry like this unexpected?

New Zealand is very much not alone in undertaking a formal inquiry into the Covid-19 response. Sweden, for example, launched a Covid commission in 2020, allowing for a number of reports to be produced on the nation’s approach to the pandemic. Australia, meanwhile, is operating on a similar timeframe to us. Its inquiry was launched in September 2023 and is due to be completed later this year. The United Kingdom’s inquiry was first announced in 2021 by then-prime minister Boris Johnson. Public hearings started last June. Requests for information linked to Johnson as part of the inquiry, including WhatsApp messages, garnered significant media attention (remember “partygate”?)

What happens next?

First things first, the commission is going to have to sit down and read all 11,000 public submissions – or at least try to. “Given the high level of public interest in Covid-19, and how many people were impacted, if we receive a very high number of responses we may use other research techniques to ensure we have effectively captured the themes and similarities across all experiences to inform the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations,” reads a post on the commission’s website.

There’s no timeline confirmed on when the submissions will be read, collated and summarised. But Blakely said the feedback would be sent to the Department of Internal Affairs, who will then provide advice to the minister ahead of any government changes to the terms of reference. “We recognise that, as a result of this feedback process, the Inquiry may be asked to look at additional aspects of the Covid-19 response, and we’ll work with the government on what that might look like once public feedback has been considered,” he said.

Van Velden said this week that the decision to expand the scope of the Inquiry was responding to a “real need” in the community. “It is essential New Zealand works out what we need to do right in the future. This means asking the right questions. I would like to thank all New Zealanders who contributed their time and experiences to this process,” she said. 

“I look forward to seeing the results of public submissions as soon as possible, which will inform the advice I take to cabinet for its consideration of an expanded terms of reference.”

Van Velden was also looking to fill the vacant commissioner’s slot left by Hekia Parata’s departure. 

It’s expected that the commission’s full report will be completed by the end of September this year. As the Inquiry is future-focused, it has said it will not hold public hearings and will instead be identifying “lessons that should be applied in preparation for any future pandemics”.

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