Coronavirus: Chris Hipkins says 'independent' COVID-19 response review needed for 'public confidence', admits low-value of pre-departure tests

Chris Hipkins says an independent review of New Zealand's COVID-19 Response will be needed to ensure "public confidence", but officials want to see what happens over winter before giving any inquiry the greenlight.

The Government's also considering the future of pre-departure tests, with Hipkins acknowledging that their use is "much less than it once was". 

The COVID-19 Response Minister was questioned by National's Chris Bishop at a Health Select Committee on Wednesday about whether the Government intended to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the pandemic response. 

"The Cabinet hasn't yet considered anything along those lines, but I think what you would have heard from the Prime Minister and I is that we do acknowledge there needs to be some kind of formal, proper status structured review of our COVID 19 response," Hipkins responded.

He couldn't say whether that inquiry will be a Royal Commission. Other options are available, Hipkins said, and Royal Commissions "can go on and on for a long time". 

But Hipkins said any review will need a "good degree of independence" to ensure "public confidence". 

"If it was a Royal Commission, it doesn't just consume the resources of the Royal Commission, it consumes the resources of all the people who have to provide evidence and respond to the Royal Commission," the minister said. 

"For many of them, they've been flat out dealing with the realities of COVID-19 on a daily basis. You want to get to the point where they can do that without disrupting the COVID response." 

Hipkins believes officials are closer to that point than it has been at any other time over the last two years, but the response may need to ramp up again over coming months. The Ministry of Health is currently modelling another peak in cases sometime during winter as Kiwis face potentially another wave of COVID-19 as well as influenza. 

"We don't quite know how the winter is going to unfold yet, but I think it is likely that at some point in the second half of this year, we will need to turn our minds to what a more formal review looks like."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub.

Hipkins also confirmed the Government is "looking verly closely" at pre-departure tests, which are still required for most people to travel to New Zealand, despite COVID-19 circulating widely here. Currently, the requirement is scheduled to last until July 31, when the border reopens fully to the world.

"I think it is likely that the decision on that will be taken sooner rather than later in terms of removing the requirement for pre-departure testing. 

"At the moment, we've linked the decision on that with the decision around the new variant plan and be able to release a new variant plain. But it's fair to say that pre-departure testing is a lot less important in our protection framework now than it was even a couple of months ago."

The current pre-departure test regime won't be making a significant contribution to preventing hospitalisations, he told ACT's David Seymour at the meeting.

Seymour released a statement following the Select Committee, saying Hipkins is "forcing us to bear the cost of pre-departure testing despite himself admitting there's no logical reason for it to continue".

"Those costs are paid by travellers, both travelling Kiwis and their visitors, and whole industries that depend on the border being open," the ACT leader said. 

"We're in the middle of a cost of living crisis but the Government still can't move on and help businesses by removing pointless restrictions."

A Labour MP, Dr Gaurav Sharma, shared his own experience of coming home from India. 

"Having a 48 hour pre-departure test was kind of very difficult logistically to get done. But also, I've had a constituent who, for example, were 55 hours later coming back from Africa and then ended up getting a $1,000 fine. They just couldn't meet that 48 hour deadline. There seemed to very less flexibility. For genuine reasons, that fine was removed. But similar concerns around is it still needed. I appreciate that you're looking into it."

Many countries, like Australia, have already scrapped pre-departure requirements. Tourism operators are calling for it to be removed here sooner rather than later, concerned it is putting off tourists who are able to currently enter the country. 

Hipkins also said the new variant plan remains in the works.