18 Oct 2022

Government signals Covid-19 inquiry in the works

7:30 pm on 18 October 2022
Chris Hipkins

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government is signalling it will set up an inquiry into the Covid-19 response - though it has not announced specific plans yet.

Acting Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins today confirmed the government's plan to scrap many of the powers it gets through the Covid-19 legislation, a "significant milestone".

The changes largely put an end to lockdowns, managed isolation and quarantine, gathering limits and vaccine mandates, while retaining seven-day isolation and mask use in some health settings.

Hipkins this afternoon said he expected it would be well received.

"We haven't had a lockdown for a wee while yet but I think New Zealanders will be feeling good and reassured that there aren't any in the foreseeable future."

"The Covid-19 Public Health Response Act is an extraordinary piece of legislation and it is one that does give the government of the day unprecedented powers to do things and therefore it should only be available to the government as long as there's a genuine emergency situation."

His statement this morning also confirmed an inquiry of some kind would take place as the government considered how to manage Covid-19 into the future.

"A continuation of these powers enables time for extensive public and stakeholder engagement on the design of a future enduring legislative framework for the management of pandemics," it said.

"The continuation period will ensure findings from the inquiry into the government's response to Covid-19 can inform the design of this future framework."

Heading into the debating chamber this afternoon, he said that would ensure there was a more enduring system in place in case of future threats from Covid-19 and other diseases.

"We want to capture the lessons from the past two-and-a-half to three years to make sure that we are better prepared and ... we have got things lined up in the event that the country has to do this again."

He said Cabinet had been having conversations about the prospect of an inquiry, but he was not in a position to announce anything at this point.

"We have done regular reviews as we've gone along but I think we are getting to that point now where a more structured review and forward look to make sure that we captured the lessons that we needed to and that we're prepared for any future events," he said.

"What we've always said is that we wanted to get through the emergency response phase, we wanted to get through winter and then that would be the appropriate time.

"Bearing in mind that the people who are going to have to respond to a commission of inquiry, whatever form that takes, are also the people who have been on the front lines dealing with the pandemic, and so we want to give them some clear air so they can actually engage."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also backed the need for an inquiry.

"As we've said for some time, we do think we need to go back and look as a whole at our experience from Covid. We know unfortunately that in the future we're likely to face other pandemics.

"We need to learn from this one and make sure - like civil defence - we have a set of arrangements ready to go for whatever circumstance arise."

Opposition parties National and ACT have repeatedly called for such an inquiry. National's leader Christopher Luxon backed the changes the government was making to its Covid-19 legislation.

"Common sense has prevailed and we are supportive of actually having protection around isolation and making sure there is mask wearing in health settings as we've seen," he said.

"For the rest of it, country needs to move on."

He said an inquiry into the Covid-19 response should take the form of a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

"It's the health response as well as the economic response, we've got to ask some questions about what did we get right, what did we not get right, and that's what we should be doing properly with an inquiry, and that's why we've called for that."

Hipkins would not confirm what form such an inquiry would take, but "if you look at the sorts of inquiries we've had ... royal commissions have been triggered for smaller things than the Covid-19 response".

In a statement, ACT leader David Seymour said his party had been the first to call for a Royal Commission, and said any investigation could not be an in-house affair.

"ACT has promised an investigation that would lean on experts from a range of countries that did things well, and not so well, to give an honest review. We would ask Taiwanese, Swedish, and Australian experts, for example, to be part of the investigation.

"The investigation is not simply about learning what Labour did wrong. It is about working out what we need to do right."

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