The long-awaited inquiry into New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 is being hailed as a vital mechanism in order to prepare for future pandemics, but political opponents fear its scope is too narrow and will fail to properly analyse the Government’s economic response.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed a Royal Commission of Inquiry would commence next year and evaluate many aspects of the Government’s attempt to protect Kiwis from the virus, ranging from isolation, vaccine mandates and lockdowns, to fiscal and monetary policy responses, impact on Māori and support for essential workers.
The Green Party, National and Act are all welcoming the inquiry - noting they had all called for it previously - but they are concerned the scope is limited and will inhibit New Zealand’s ability to adequately prepare for the next pandemic.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, a key proponent of New Zealand’s elimination strategy, was “delighted” to see the Commission announced as it provided an opportunity to learn, citing the potential threat of bioterrorism.
While the inquiry is concerned with the country’s past responses, Covid-19 was still a current threat with 34,528 new community cases reported in the past week alongside 40 deaths attributed to the virus.
The inquiry, detailed yesterday afternoon by Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall, would begin considering evidence from February 1 next year and a report must be delivered by June 26, 2024.
It would be chaired by Australian-based epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, who would be supported by former National Party Cabinet minister Hekia Parata and former Treasury secretary John Whitehead.
The overall aim of the inquiry - expected to cost $15 million - was to examine lessons learned from New Zealand’s response that could be applied in preparation for a future pandemic, as outlined in its terms of reference agreed by Cabinet on Monday.
“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,” Ardern said.
“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.”
The terms of reference stated the public health response required for a future pandemic would be assessed, relating to the use of isolation and quarantine at the border and in the community, vaccine and testing mandates, case management systems, vaccine passes, gathering limits, personal protective equipment and modelling systems - based on how they were used to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
It would also investigate what would be needed to support the country’s “immediate economic response” - fiscal and monetary policy responses, temporary financial support to individuals, businesses and sectors, and short-term measures such as exemptions to sustain specific industries.
The consideration of the interest of Māori in the context of a pandemic, consistent with the Treaty of Waitangi, had been a specific request to inquiry members, Ardern said.
She explained the inquiry was designed to determine the effectiveness of tools used against Covid-19, such as lockdowns and mandates, but would not concern itself with issues on an individual level or those not considered integral to future planning.
That was reflected in what the inquiry’s scope did not extend to, such as particular decisions made by clinicians or public health authorities during the pandemic, vaccine efficacy, recent health reforms that saw district health boards scrapped and decisions taken by the Reserve Bank independent monetary policy committee.
Those aspects left out of the inquiry had been central to much of the political criticism following the announcement, despite members of the Greens, National and Act welcoming the inquiry.
Green Party Covid-19 spokesman Teanau Tuiono did not doubt the inquiry would provide valuable lessons, but he said it appeared “deliberately narrow in scope” and excluded the impact of the Government’s economic response on inequality.
“We would like to see more focus on exactly what went wrong with the vaccine rollout in [Māori and Pasifika] 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.”
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick said the terms of reference fell short by “focusing almost exclusively on the immediate economic pandemic response”.
“Some economists estimate the price paid was about a trillion dollars from the lowest wealth New Zealanders to the wealthiest,” she said.
“This really matters in the context of today’s inflationary environment, which impacts low-income New Zealanders the most.”
National Covid-19 Response spokesman Dr Shane Reti was disappointed other parties weren’t consulted on the inquiry’s membership and the “limited” terms of reference.
“We also note that a separate independent economic inquiry is still needed to paint the full picture of the effects that Covid-19 had,” he said.
Act Party leader David Seymour, who had been calling for an inquiry since May 2020, said the inquiry should have been completed ahead of next year’s general election.
He believed the inquiry’s terms of reference were inadequate, highlighting the removal of the operation of the private sector, except where services were integral to a pandemic response, from the scope.
“Like the whole pandemic response, these terms of reference are blind to the wider issues of human wellbeing.”
Like Seymour, epidemiologist Michael Baker had backed calls for a Royal Commission, but he was encouraged by the inquiry’s focus on making New Zealand more resilient to future events.
“No one doubts the momentous scale of the pandemic and our response, but Covid-19 is still with us, and will be for the foreseeable future,” he said.
“The risk of pandemics is also rising for a lot of reasons – including the potential for bioterrorism – so the more we can learn from this, the better.”
As of yesterday, there were 3900 reported cases, and the seven-day rolling average stood at 4926 - the highest counts seen since August.
There were also 418 people in hospital at midnight, the highest number recorded since August 21. The seven-day rolling average of deaths attributable to Covid-19 is three.