New Zealand launches official inquiry into Covid response

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (REUTERS)
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (REUTERS)

New Zealand has announced an official inquiry into its handling of the Covid pandemic.

The inquiry would help future governments prepare for pandemics, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, adding that the virus was the greatest threat to the country’s economy and health since World War II.

She said Monday was an appropriate time to start examining the government’s response with the highest level of independent inquiry.

It will examine whether New Zealand took the right approach initially by imposing strict lockdowns and border quarantine restrictions in order to try and wipe out the virus entirely.

While this led to a lower death rate than in many other countries, it came at an economic and social cost.

Some citizens faced huge delays when returning home due to bottlenecks at border quarantine facilities.

The government eventually abandoned its elimination approach in October 2021, after new and more contagious variants proved impossible to contain and people were given the chance to get vaccinated.

New Zealand’s Royal Commission of Inquiry will be led by Tony Blakely, an Australia-based epidemiologist and professor.

From early next year, it has 17 months to research and prepare an exhaustive report.

Ms Ardern said it was crucial to find out what had worked in its response to help the country through future pandemics.

“We had no playbook by which to manage Covid but, as a country, we united in an extraordinary way, and we did save lives and livelihoods,” she said.

Covid-19 Response Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall said one of the lessons was that having a prescriptive pandemic plan, like New Zealand’s influenza-based plan before Covid-19 hit, was not much use.

“I imagine the lesson has been learned that just looking at the characteristics of one bug isn’t going to cut it,” Verrall said. “You have to look much more broadly.”

The merits of a zero-tolerance approach to Covid continue to be debated, with China still imposing draconian lockdowns on its citizens in a bid to contain the virus.

Critics say the approach is unsustainable in the long term and that China has no plan to avoid an exit wave of infections and deaths.