Simon Bridges accuses Government of wanting to 'get rid' of COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee

Simon Bridges is accusing the Government of wanting to "get rid" of the Epidemic Response Committee he chairs - but a Labour MP thinks the Opposition leader has "tarnished" it by using it as a platform.

To scrutinise the Government's response to COVID-19, and while Parliament was closed during lockdown, Bridges chaired the Opposition-led committee via videoconference that heard from ministers, affected industries, and Kiwis who struggled through the lockdown rules. 

Bridges wants the committee to continue throughout alert level 2 because the Government is still exercising control he says needs to be kept in check. But he's not sure if it will continue, and accused the Government of wanting to "get rid of it".

"We're not in normality. We're in a situation where there's still a lot of control, and some of that's right, but that says to me New Zealanders do deserve to have a committee asking reasonable questions of ministers and others."

Labour MP Michael Wood, a member of the COVID-19 committee, said it "worked pretty well" during lockdown when Parliament wasn't sitting, but he said Bridges has "tarnished" it by using it as a political platform.

"Increasingly over recent weeks, it's become a little bit more like a partisan platform for the chair," he told Newshub. "We've had him make political attacks on Dr Bloomfield and that kind of thing and I think that has tarnished it a bit."

He said any decision about extending the committee will be made by the Business Committee - which Wood is also a part of - or the House.

Bridges used the Epidemic Response Committee earlier this month to issue summonses to the Solicitor-General, the Director-General of Health and Police Commissioner seeking the legal advice for the lockdown.

There was speculation the Government lacked the legal power to enforce the lockdown, with leaked Crown law advice to the media purportedly showing police were initially told they had little power to enforce the rules.

Attorney-General David Parker dismissed the claims and refused to release the Crown law advice. He said the Crown is entitled to claim legal professional privilege in respect of the advice that it receives.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges.
Opposition leader Simon Bridges. Photo credit: Getty

Bridges told Magic Talk he's confident the Opposition will get the legal advice in the end.

"I don't think it's gone away entirely. We've asked under the Official Information Act for that advice... I think in the end we'll get it... I think these things matter, I think rule of law matters, and that's why we'll keep pursuing it."

Former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson said in a Facebook video on Sunday it's important that governments are "always held to account on this sort of stuff because if you let standards slip, then we can find ourselves in trouble".

Bridges also attacked what he described as a "terrible law" passed by the Government last week setting the framework for alert level 2. It allows warrantless police searches to enforce the level 2 rules, sparking human rights concerns.

The Attorney-General announced on Friday that the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act now faces a post-enactment review by a select committee. 

It will be reviewed by the Finance and Expenditure Committee, chaired by Labour MP Deborah Russell. The majority of committee members are on the Government's side - seven Labour and NZ First MPs against six Opposition MPs.

Labour MP Michael Wood.
Labour MP Michael Wood. Photo credit: The AM Show

Bridges said it should be the Epidemic Response Committee that oversees the review.

"We thought it should be an Opposition-led committee. It's going to - wait for it - a Government-led committee... The Finance and Expenditure Committee... They have a majority on it."

Wood said he does not think that's a fair observation.

He described the Finance and Expenditure Committee as the "most prestigious committee at Parliament" and said every party will be represented because Labour intends to give up one of its seats to the Greens.

It's the same committee that the firearms legislation was referred to after the March 15 Christchurch terror attack, and Wood said that was because the committee is "seen as the most prestigious of the committees".

Bridges said he thinks there will be a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the COVID-19 response. 

"I think it's inevitable," he told Magic Talk. "I don't think there's a way that we couldn't at the end of this have a serious independent inquiry.

"Whether it's civil liberties or two months of lockdown, whether it's the health consequences or the economic effects which we'll be dealing with for generations, I think that's inevitable and that's the right thing to do."

A Royal Commission is considered to be the most serious pathway available to the Government to investigate an issue. 

The latest Royal Commission of Inquiry is investigating events related to the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019. Because of COVID-19, the Government extended the time available for the probe, with the report now due on July 31.