6 Dec 2022

Royal Commission on Covid-19 response: Political parties ponder purpose

5:45 am on 6 December 2022
Montage for Covid-19 Royal Commission of Inquiry

Mask use, the vaccine rollout, the effectiveness of the elimination strategy and the managed isolation system will all be examined during the inquiry. Photo: 123RF / AFP / RNZ

The government hopes a Royal Commission into its Covid-19 response will provide the strongest possible playbook for any future pandemic.

The prime minister has announced the terms of reference for the inquiry, which will delve into the overall response, and the lessons learned along the way.

But other political parties are concerned over its scope and timing.

A Royal Commission is the most significant level of inquiry New Zealand has, set to lay bare the response to the most significant threat to New Zealand's health and economy since World War II.

There have already been 75 reviews and 1639 recommendations since the pandemic began. Jacinda Ardern said it was now time to get on with the final one.

"With the emergency over and our primary focus on our strong economic recovery, that time is now."

The Royal Commission's scope is wide-ranging, covering things like the economic response, vaccine and mask mandates, border closure, isolation, and the effectiveness of strategies such as elimination or the traffic light system.

Read an explainer on the what, who and why of the government's announcement

But it's also narrow: it won't touch how a particular individual might have been affected by a particular policy.

So while MIQ will be scrutinised for example, the inquiry won't go into every decision made over granting spots.

And while monetary policy is included broadly, particular decisions made by the Reserve Bank's independent committee are not.

"We do need to make sure we learn broadly from the tools that were used for our response, so that we make sure we have the most useful lessons possible going forward. Individual decisions don't necessarily teach us that," Ardern said.

Otago University public health professor Michael Baker is likely to contribute to the inquiry.

He is delighted it's happening - but hopes it addresses the need for a coherent suppression strategy.

"What gave New Zealand such a good response for the first two years was a very clear elimination strategy, which worked really well. And then obviously, we had to transition to a different approach. And I think we haven't made that transition very clear.

"I think at the moment it's not that clear to most New Zealanders what exactly our strategy is now for the pandemic," he said.

The inquiry's estimated to cost $15 million and must report back by June 2024.

'Highly cynical' - Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour said at least a draft report should be back before the election campaign begins.

"They've waited till the 11th hour of the 12th month of the political year, in order that it can't possibly be reported, even in draft form before the election. That is highly cynical, because in a democracy, such an inquiry should inform the voters' verdict on a government," he said.

ACT leader David Seymour releases the party's Covid 3.0 (life after lockdown) plan to media in the Legislative Council Chamber in Parliament on 28 September 2021.

David Seymour isn't happy with the timing. Photo: Pool / Stuff / Robert Kitchin

But the prime minister said no Royal Commission has taken less than a year.

"We said we wanted to wait until the immediate response of Covid was changing. So that's why we're announcing it now. But it will take longer than 12 months. No Royal Commission has been shorter than that. And that's why you see it tipping over into the aftermath," she said.

Professor Baker said there should be flexibility around its end date, and decisions being made at the moment were still critical.

"We haven't yet made that critical decision about the transition to what may be a long-term endemic threat," he said.

The inquiry will also only look at the strategies, settings, and measures in place between February 2020 and October 2022.

Green Party Covid-19 response spokesperson Teanau Tuiono said the pandemic is not over, and the inquiry needs to include the impact decisions made continue to have on at-risk groups like Māori, Pasifika, immunocompromised, and disabled people.

"I'm concerned about the protections that were removed, and whether the advice was followed through that was provided by health experts as well," he said.

Green MP Teanau Tuiono on the Justice Committee

Teanau Tuiono says the pandemic isn't over and the inquiry should look at its impact on vulnerable groups. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

National's Dr Shane Reti, however, believed the timeframe was appropriate.

"I think we have to draw a line in the sand. The question would be what would we learn in November or December that we don't already know?"

Although National would like to have been consulted on the terms of reference, it welcomed the inquiry.

Dr Reti expressed hope it would be comprehensive and have a wide scope.

"We need to make sure that some of the key elements to the Covid response are well covered, both in the terms of reference and during the inquiry. And that would include things like late vaccines, late RAT tests, New Zealanders who were left abandoned offshore through MIQ policies," he said.

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Dr Shane Reti says there are a myriad of issues to be covered. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The terms of reference will also consider the interests of Māori in a pandemic.

Te Pati Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the Waitangi Tribunal had already found the pandemic response breached Te Tiriti, so there's already clear lessons.

"We know that there was an absolute failing on the vaccine and booster vaccine rollout. It wasn't equitable. For Māori, we knew that the way that the whole public response was coordinated, had it not been for Whānau Ora, and providers standing up, it would have actually been so much worse," she said.

"There have been clear failings and clear lessons, and if this isn't seen as the intent of the review, then that's what we need to see."

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