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Royal Commission on NZ’s COVID-19 response – Expert Reaction

The Government has announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into its COVID-19 response. The aim of the inquiry is to collate lessons learned that should be applied to prepare for future pandemics.

The Commission will be chaired by Australia-based epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, former Cabinet Minister Hon Hekia Parata, and former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead, CNZM, KStJ.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Professor Michael Baker, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“I very much welcome the ‘Royal Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learned from Aotearoa New Zealand’s Response to COVID-19 That Should Be Applied in Preparation for a Future Pandemic’. The forward looking terms of reference are very appropriate as is the set of highly skilled and experienced commissioners who were announced today. I think we can be optimistic that this Commission will deliver a very useful inquiry report for Aotearoa New Zealand.

“The New Zealand Covid-19 response was undoubtedly one of the most effective delivered by any country. After almost three years of the pandemic New Zealand is still one of a tiny group of countries with negative excess mortality. This is because New Zealand chose to pursue an elimination strategy during 2020 and 2021, which successfully delayed widespread circulation of Covid-19 until we were able to achieve high vaccine coverage.

“There are things New Zealand could have done better during the pandemic period, and the Royal Commission will be well placed to identify these areas. These important lessons need to be documented so that they can inform our responses to future pandemics.

“The mix of commissioners is an excellent choice. It is particularly good to see that a public health researcher and practitioner of Professor Tony Blakely’s standing has been chosen to lead this process. He is well equipped to help the Commission achieve maximum benefits from what will be a large, complex, and resource intensive review.

“One limitation of this inquiry is that its scope is restricted to the period between February 2020 and October 2022. New Zealand should have been more focussed on assessing the growing pandemic threat as early as January 2020. Similarly, the pandemic is ongoing now, so decisions being made past October 2022 are still important. We have not yet worked out an effective strategy for ‘living with Covid-19’ so that remains an important question for review.”

No conflicts of interest

Professor Alexander Gillespie, Faculty of Law, University of Waikato, comments:

“I was at the forefront of calls for an inquiry into New Zealand’s pandemic response, more or less, a year ago – so what do I think? It’s excellent. It takes a lot of bravery on the part of any government to conduct a Royal Commission, as these are the highest level bodies that can be assembled to look at pressing matters of public importance. The Government got the level – the highest possible – correct. This is above a Commission of Inquiry. This will give the Commission a lot of power to get to the bottom of various issues.

“I think the make-up, with experts in epidemiology, treasury, and policy formation is very good. Personally, I would have added an expert on law, but I would say that! The mix is good, with strong kiwi connections, but sometimes there is something to be said with bringing in experts who have no connection, at all, to NZ. This is an old debate (about whether reviews are best done by outside experts) but for what it is worth, I have full confidence in these people, and it reflects a maturity that the country is ready to evaluate itself, transparently, accurately and critically.

“The timing is good. We are out of the emergency, and have a bit of distance between now and the worst parts of the pandemic. It is a good time for the reflection to start.

“The focus seems very good. To look at the legality of many of the most controversial aspects, to examine whether decisions to suppress liberties were demonstrably justifiable, is excellent. Dealing with law and public safety in times of emergency is exceptionally difficult, especially in a once in a generation challenge – and now, to put this under the spot light, is excellent. The only certainty we have is that more pandemics will hit our country in the future, and giving those future generations the benefit of our analysis of what worked, and what did not, is – in helping them manage their crisis – the best we can do for them.”

No conflicts of interest declared