5 Dec 2022

Royal Commission of Inquiry into Covid-19 pandemic response: What you need to know

9:02 pm on 5 December 2022
Collage of Covid test and person wearing a mask.

Photo: 123rf.com / Composite Image - RNZ

Explainer: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic response.

It will look at lessons learned and aims to help New Zealand better prepare for future pandemics.

But what exactly will the inquiry look into, why is it needed, and how much will it cost?

RNZ has all you need to know.

What is a Royal Commission of Inquiry?

A Royal Commission of Inquiry is the highest level of investigation available to the government. It is made up of an independent panel who look into an issue in hopes of preventing the issue happening again.

Information to form the final report is taken from the Commission's own investigations as well as a range of sources.

Previous inquiries of this level include the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attack and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into building failures caused by Canterbury earthquakes.

Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the inquiry on 5 December. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Who is leading the inquiry?

The inquiry will be chaired by Australian-based epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, with former Cabinet Minister Hekia Parata and former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead making up the panel.

Ardern said: "Each brings a unique set of skills, and importantly, are independent of the government and its response".

Why is this inquiry needed?

Ardern said the Covid-19 pandemic affected every country in the world and there has been no playbook on how to manage it.

It had been more than 100 years since a pandemic of this scale happened so it was "critical" that a report compiled what worked, what did not work, and what can be learned from the government's response if something like it was to ever happen again.

Ardern said it was important a Royal Commission of Inquiry was undertaken instead of a government inquiry or public inquiry for example, because of its significance.

"[It] 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."

What will be looked at?

Cabinet approved the terms of reference for the inquiry on 5 December and Ardern said it would be "wide-ranging". The Royal Commission is expected to look at the government's overall response to the pandemic.

This will include the economic response, what can be learned from the pandemic and how it can be applied to any future pandemic.

Ardern said the inquiry would also look at decisions made around New Zealand's border closure, community care, isolation and quarantine.

However, it would look into the effectiveness of the government's strategies such as elimination, minimisation and protection.

The inquiry would also cover Māori interests in the context of a pandemic with consideration of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi relationship and the impact the pandemic had - and what support was in place - for essential workers, populations and communities most impacted by it.

It would also investigate what legislative, regulatory and operational settings were required to support New Zealand's immediate economic response if there was to be another pandemic in the future.

The Royal Commission would focus on the government's response to the pandemic from February 2020 until October 2022.

But hasn't New Zealand's response already been looked at?

Ardern said the country's response had already been "heavily reviewed".

Since 2020, 75 reviews have been carried out both nationally and internationally with 1639 recommendations made.

However, Ardern said the government has always said there would be a time when it became appropriate to review its response and learn from it.

"That time is now," she said.

So what won't be looked at?

Ardern said the inquiry would not look at "individual decisions" and how policies applied to individual cases or circumstances.

Other matters outside the inquiry's scope include judgments and decisions of courts, tribunals and other agencies on matters relating to the pandemic, private sector operations, and particular decisions made by the Reserve Bank's independent monetary policy committee.

Changes to court proceedings and parliament proceedings because of the pandemic will not be looked at, nor will the conduct of the 2020 general election.

Vaccine efficacy, and the "specific epidemiology" of the virus and its variants will also not be a part of the inquiry.

How long will it take and what's the cost?

The panel will start working on the report from 1 February and is expected to finish in mid-2024. A report will then be prepared.

Apart from a Government Inquiry, Ardern said all inquiries took more than 12 months to complete.

Ardern said its expected to cost about $15 million.

The Royal Commission into the terrorist attack cost $14m, she said.

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