New Zealand First joins National in calling for parliamentary committee to scrutinise COVID-19 response

New Zealand First has joined National's call to reconvene Parliament's Health Select Committee so that MPs can scrutinise the Government's COVID-19 response in a public setting. 

National's health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti has written to Health Select Committee chair Louisa Wall twice now to request the committee convene and call on Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Health Minister Chris Hipkins to appear. 

"It is vitally important that we utilise Parliament's capabilities to make our response stronger," he said last week. "The scrutiny provided by the Health Select Committee will help us improve our response and therefore improve the safety of all New Zealanders."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has announced that his caucus agrees, and believes it is "logical" for the committee to meet to "canvass the advice" of the Director-General of Health pertaining to Monday's lockdown extension. 

"Given the economic and health consequences of the Cabinet's decision it is appropriate for the accountability function to be performed while Parliament is sitting," Peters said on Tuesday. 

National leader Judith Collins said it would provide some "clarity about what has happened in relation to the COVID-19 response" and what has been characterised as a miscommunication between Ministry of Health and the Minister of Health on testing. 

Newshub revealed that only 60 percent of border-facing workers in Auckland had been tested the week before the latest COVID-19 outbreak, which Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said fell short of Cabinet's expectations. 

Collins said Dr Reti has not yet received any reply to his request to reconvene the Health Select Committee, and she said it's because Labour MPs disagreed with the idea. 

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday reconvening the Health Select Committee is not something that was ever raised with her when she consulted with political party leaders ahead of delaying the election date. 

"When I undertook my phone calls with party representatives, one of the questions around if the election were put back and Parliament were to be reconvened, was what would the expectation around Parliament be?" Ardern said. 

"No one raised with me directly the issue of select committees."

Ardern said Collins "specifically flagged" with her that she was not interested in having a public committee to hold the Government to account, similar to the Epidemic Response Committee held during the last outbreak. 

Ardern said the Director-General of Health is "very, very available" and it would be "unusual" to have "consistent appearances" from him at a select committee. But she said it's ultimately up to the committee to decide. 

Hipkins had a similar response. 

"It's up to the Health Select Committee what they decide to do," he said. "I don't think ministers should tell select committees what they do. It's something that I've tried to avoid doing in my time as a minister in a range of different portfolios."

Hipkins said he and the Director-General has been "widely available" for media interviews and have been keeping the public up-to-date with almost daily press briefings. 

"It's not a question of saying there shouldn't be scrutiny," he said. "There absolutely should be. But at some point, there does need to be a limit to scrutiny versus time to actually do the work."

He said briefings have been provided to the Opposition. 

"Shane Reti I think contacted me yesterday asking for a briefing. We didn't manage to schedule that yesterday because people were actively working and making sure that we got the announcement out yesterday," he said. 

"But we are endeavouring to schedule that for this afternoon so they will have the briefing. We've not been declining the briefings. But if they want those to be in public through a select committee, then that's obviously a matter for the select committee to determine."

Dr Bloomfield said he is always willing to answer questions. 

"What I can say is that I've been involved already as have other members of my staff in briefing Opposition MPs about this particular outbreak," he said.

"I certainly have no trouble in making myself available to brief on particular topics or generally on how things are going and I have done that already just last week."