Royal Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand's COVID-19 response announced

A Royal Commission of Inquiry will be established to review New Zealand's COVID-19 Response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

The inquiry, which will cover both the health and economic response to the pandemic in New Zealand, will be chaired by epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely alongside former National Party minister Hekia Parata and former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead.

It will begin considering evidence from February 1, 2023 and conclude in mid-2024. A report will then be prepared to help inform the Government's future pandemic response.

The review will look into everything from the legislative and regulatory measures used to support the public health and immediate economic responses, to the consideration of Māori in the context of the pandemic.

It won't look into decisions by clinicians, vaccine efficacy, or some individual decisions by the Reserve Bank. Monetary policy will be looked at by the inquiry, but not decisions by the RBNZ's independent monetary policy committee.

The terms of reference say: "The inquiry may assess whether New Zealand’s initial elimination strategy and later minimisation and protection strategy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and supporting economic and other measures, were effective in limiting the spread of infection and limiting the impact of the virus on vulnerable groups and the health system, having regard to New Zealand’s circumstances, what was known at the time, and the strategies adopted by comparable jurisdictions.

"The inquiry should consider the strategies, settings, and measures identified above as they existed or operated between February 2020 and October 2022, and not outside those dates.

"The inquiry should make recommendations on the public health strategies and supporting economic and other measures that New Zealand should apply in preparation for any future pandemic, in relation to the principal matters within the inquiry’s scope, by applying relevant lessons learned from New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 and the response from comparable jurisdictions."

The full list of what is and what isn't in the scope of the inquiry can be found below. 

"Every country in the world has grappled with COVID-19 and there was no playbook for managing it,” Ardern said.

"It had been over 100 years since we experienced a pandemic of this scale, so it’s critical we compile what worked and what we can learn from it should it ever happen again.

"New Zealand experienced fewer cases, hospitalisations and deaths than nearly any other country in the first two years of the pandemic but there has undoubtedly been a huge impact on New Zealanders both here and abroad."

She said a Royal Commission of Inquiry is appropriate for what has been "the most significant threat to the health of New Zealanders and our economy since World War II".

Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Tinetti said each of the three people leading the inquiry bring a specific perspective.

"Professor Blakely’s understanding of public health is extensive. He has the knowledge and experience necessary to lead this work. Hekia Parata and John Whitehead will add expertise and bring useful perspectives on the economic response and the response for Māori."

It comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are back on the rise, but nearly all of the country's restrictions have been dropped, including the traffic light system, vaccine mandates and most mask requirements. The only remaining rules are around isolation periods and face coverings in some healthcare settings.

On Monday, the Ministry of Health announced 34,528 new community cases of COVID-19. That's up from 27,076 cases over the week prior. 

Ardern has previously said it is important New Zealand learns from its experience with COVID-19, so the country is ready for future challenges. 

"There will always be things we should learn and we should learn them because there is a chance that we will, of course, experience these things in the future and we need to be ready for that," the Prime Minister said in September.

The Greens, National and the ACT Party have all been calling for an independent inquiry into the economic response to COVID-19. They wanted Reserve Bank decisions to be considered.

Within the scope of the inquiry:

  • the legislative, regulatory, and operational settings required to support New Zealand’s public health response to a pandemic;
  • communication with, engagement of, and enabling people and communities to mobilise and act in support of both personal and community public health outcomes over an extended period;
  • the legislative, regulatory, and operational settings needed to ensure the continued supply of goods and services required to enable people to isolate or otherwise take protective measures for an extended period during a pandemic;
  • the legislative, regulatory, and operational settings required to support New Zealand’s immediate economic response to a future pandemic; 
  • the decision-making structures and arrangements that might be used or put in place during an evolving pandemic of extended length;
  • consideration of the interests of Māori in the context of a pandemic, consistent with the Te Tiriti o Waitangi relationship;
  • consideration of the impact on, and differential support for, essential workers and populations and communities that may be disproportionally impacted by a pandemic.

Outside the scope of the inquiry:

  • particular clinical decisions made by clinicians or by public health authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • how and when the strategies and other measures devised in response to COVID-19 were implemented or applied in particular situations or in individual cases;

  • the specific epidemiology of the COVID-19 virus and its variants;

  • vaccine efficacy;

  • the recent reforms to New Zealand’s health system, including the organisational arrangements for public health services;

  • the judgments and decisions of courts and tribunals and independent agencies such as the Ombudsman, the Privacy Commissioner, or the Independent Police Conduct Authority relating to the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • the operation of the private sector, except where the private sector delivers services integral to a pandemic response;

  • particular decisions taken by the Reserve Bank’s independent monetary policy committee during the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • any adaptation of court procedures by the judiciary during the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • any adaptation of parliamentary processes during the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • the conduct of the general election during the COVID-19 pandemic.