Why has the Government established a Royal Commission of Inquiry?

A Royal Commission of Inquiry has been established to prepare New Zealand for future pandemics, by providing recommendations based on the key lessons learnt from our COVID-19 experience. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, significant, complex, and far-reaching impacts on people, whānau and communities. 

The Government recognises the opportunity and duty to carry out a review of our response to the pandemic, as part of our commitment to laying the foundations for a better future.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry is the highest form of public inquiry for the most serious issues of public importance, so it is the most appropriate type of inquiry for this purpose.

Why has the Royal Commission been established? 

It is timely to strengthen New Zealand’s preparedness for future pandemics following the retirement of the COVID-19 Protection Framework (the traffic light system). While COVID-19 is still in our communities, most public health restrictions have been lifted, signalling the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic. It’s important we review and learn from our recent experience while knowledge is fresh in our minds and readily available.

What will the Royal Commission do? 

The purpose of the Royal Commission is to strengthen New Zealand’s preparedness for, and response to, potential future pandemics. The unprecedented and evolving nature of COVID-19 meant that uncertainty was a constant feature throughout the pandemic. A future pandemic will also bring with it uncertainty, along with a unique set of challenges. It will not replicate our experience of COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a coronavirus – the next pandemic might be an influenza or another infectious agent. New Zealand’s preparation for future pandemics needs to be flexible enough to respond effectively to a broad range of potential infectious agents and events.

The Royal Commission will focus on identifying lessons from New Zealand’s COVID-19 pandemic response that can be applied to future pandemic planning. This involves consideration of the lessons that can be learnt from the elimination and minimisation and protection strategies. 

How will the public be able to participate?

The Royal Commission is gathering information from a range of sources and people. We know the pandemic has had significant effects for everyone, and we want to hear the stories and experiences of individual New Zealanders as part of the Inquiry. Opportunities for public participation will begin in early 2024 and information about how to have your say will be available on our website.  

Will there be public hearings?

No. The Royal Commission is not required to hold public hearings, and the Inquiries Act 2013 allows each inquiry to set its own procedure. This Inquiry is taking a non-adversarial approach, which means Commissioners will be seeking information and gathering evidence in a less formal way than holding public hearings, for example. Our focus is on what we can learn to ensure New Zealand is prepared for the future, not on assigning blame or finding fault.

Will the Royal Commission assess how well the Government responded or where it could have done better?

Yes. To identify lessons that should be applied in preparation for any future pandemic, the Royal Commission will comment on the effectiveness of New Zealand’s initial elimination strategy, and later minimisation and protection strategy. Considerations will include how effective were they in limiting the spread of the virus and its impact on vulnerable groups and the health system. The Royal Commission will look into this in the context of New Zealand’s circumstances, what was known at the time, and the strategies adopted by other countries.

What won’t the Royal Commission look at? 

As with all inquiries, some things are outside the Terms of Reference, or excluded. This helps avoid duplication of effort and helps to ensure the inquiry's task is manageable and can be done within a reasonable timeframe. Many of the exclusions for this inquiry reinforce the lesson-learned, future-focused approach, and the preference to not duplicate the material already produced. They direct the Royal Commission away from a fault-finding process. For example, while the policy framework for the response is in scope, the individual decisions, such as whether certain individuals should or should not have been granted MIQ access, or on which days alert levels should have changed, are excluded from the Inquiry’s scope. These individual decisions are less likely to help inform future pandemic decision-making and preparedness. 

Given how critical the public health system is in a pandemic, will the Royal Commission be able to make recommendations about the recent health reforms?

No. The recent reforms to New Zealand’s health system, including the organisational arrangements for public health services are excluded from the Royal Commission’s scope. The Royal Commission is not invited to relitigate the health reforms in terms of a general examination or to provide recommendations on how health services generally should be organised. It is within scope, however, for the Royal Commission to identify lessons that can be learned about expectations of health services and how they need to be maintained during a pandemic. The Royal Commission’s recommendations will be relevant regardless of the structure of the health system in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Why are democratic accountability mechanisms like parliamentary processes and the general election out of scope? 

The Terms of Reference appropriately restrict the Royal Commission from examining matters that come within the purview of Parliament.

The resilience of the electoral system, including conducting an election in a pandemic or other emergency, is included in the terms of reference for the Independent Electoral Review. Specifically, the terms of reference for that Review include the resilience of the electoral system, including flexibility to use emergency powers to conduct an election.

The Independent Electoral Review is also required to consider recommendations from the Justice and Electoral Select Committee. The Report of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee into the 2020 General Election recommended the legislative framework be reviewed to ensure to ensure that there is adequate resilience to emergencies. 

Will the response of the private sector be part of the Inquiry?

The operation of the private sector is excluded from the Royal Commission’s scope, except where the private sector was responsible for delivering services integral to a pandemic response. 

How will this inquiry benefit New Zealanders?

There will be future pandemics, and it’s imperative Aotearoa is well prepared to respond a future pandemic. 

Learning from our COVID-19 experience will ensure New Zealand has appropriate and effective policies and practices in place for the future that will benefit New Zealanders across many aspects of their lives.