New Zealand announces inquiry into Covid-19 response

<span>Photograph: Mark Mitchell/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Mitchell/AP

New Zealand will launch an official inquiry into its Covid-19 response so that future governments are better prepared to deal with pandemics, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

The government announced the royal commission of inquiry – to be chaired by Australian-based epidemiologist Prof Tony Blakely, former cabinet minister Hekia Parata and former treasury secretary John Whitehead – on Monday afternoon.

It will begin in February 2023 and be completed in mid-2024, Ardern told a media briefing.

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“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 two,” Ardern said, adding that while every country grappled with the virus, there was no playbook for managing it.

“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 will look at the overall response between February 2020 and October 2022, including the policy settings required to support the public health response, as well as what can be learned and how that can be applied to any future pandemics.

“New Zealand experienced fewer cases, hospitalisations and deaths than nearly any other country in the first two years of the pandemic but there has undoubtedly been a huge impact on New Zealanders both here and abroad,” Ardern said.

New Zealand’s strict Covid-19 response was broadly considered one of the most successful in the world, with a low Covid-19 mortality rate through the first 18 months of the pandemic until vaccines became widely available. Life-expectancy actually increased during this period.

But the announcement comes at a time when the country is experiencing a surge of Covid-19 cases with very few restrictions still in place. On Monday, the ministry of health announced 34,528 new community cases for the week, compared to 27,076 cases in the week prior. There have been a total of 2,235 deaths attributed to the virus in New Zealand since the pandemic began.

According to the terms of reference, the commission may assess whether the government’s initial elimination strategy and later minimisation and protection strategy – as well as supporting economic and other measures – were effective in limiting the spread of infection.

It will also consider whether the strategies were effective in limiting the impact of the virus on vulnerable groups and the health system, while taking into account the strategies adopted by comparable jurisdictions.

It will not consider individual responses such as particular clinical decisions made by medical professionals, or decisions from independent entities such as the Reserve Bank. Subjects like vaccine efficacy and the epidemiology of the virus will also not be considered.

The Green party, National and Act have regularly called on the government to launch an inquiry into its Covid response, as well as the economic decisions it, and the Reserve Bank made, which they believe helped lead to stubbornly high inflation and increased inequality.

A key proponent of New Zealand’s elimination strategy, Otago University epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker, told the NZ Herald he was “delighted” at the announcement.

Baker, who had also called for a royal commission, said the inquiry would be “a great opportunity for all of us to be better prepared” for future pandemics.