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NZ launches royal commission into handling of COVID-19


NZ Labour PM Ardern faces an election likely during 2023

A $A14 million royal commission has been asked to report back into New Zealand's COVID-19 response by June 2024.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern selected Australian-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely to lead the review, announcing on Monday that "the highest form of public inquiry is the right thing to do".

"The COVID-19 emergency was the most significant threat to the health of New Zealanders and our economy since World War II.
"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.
"It's critical we compile what worked and what we can learn from it should it ever happen again."

Consistent with previously enquiries in August, October and November, FlowNews24 has asked the Australian Prime Minister's office again whether the Australian government would also commission a royal commission into Australia's handling of the virus and related restrictions. In mid-November, Flow's last enquiry resulted in Australian health minister Mark Butler saying:

"As the Prime Minister has said there is no doubt a need for a deep inquiry into Australia’s COVID-19 response.
"The country is coming out of the third Omicron wave – that is where the Government’s focus has been."

Dr Blakely is a New Zealand-born professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne who emerged as a familiar face during the pandemic, explaining the virus and sharing his views on various measures to audiences on both sides of the Tasman.


He will be joined by former minister Hekia Parata and former Treasury secretary John Whitehead to form the royal commission.


Dr Blakely has been asked to begin work in February 2023 and finish by June 2024, meaning the commission will not report back before next year's election.


The scope of the $NZ15 million ($A14.1 million) probe is broad, with Ms Ardern saying she wanted New Zealand to be ready for future pandemics.


To keep the task manageable, the royal commission will zoom out on topics, for instance, reviewing lockdowns but not the precise timings, borders or settings of each lockdown. 


It will look at border settings as a whole but not their specific timings.


It will review the Reserve Bank's highly contentious monetary policy settings, but not each individual decision the central bank made on the way.


Decisions made by individual health professionals on how COVID-19 measures applied to individual Kiwis will also be out of scope.


New Zealand was widely credited with one of the world's best initial COVID-19 responses, successfully eliminating the virus from Kiwi shores after it first arrived in February 2020.


Ms Ardern said she "did a little dance" in June 2020 after learning its tough-as-nails lockdown eradicated active cases left in the country.


Later that year, Ms Ardern's party was handsomely rewarded for leading the response.


Labour won re-election in October 2020 with 50 per cent of the nationwide party vote - the greatest share at a general election of any party for 69 years.


New Zealand remained relatively COVID-free through to 2021 when the Delta variant arrived, producing long lockdowns, particularly in North Island.


Auckland - home to one-third of NZ's population and two-fifths of the Kiwi economy - retained stay-at-home restrictions for 107 days through to December, producing mass frustration and stymieing business.


In early 2022, anti-vaccine protesters occupied Wellington streets and the parliament lawns for three weeks in an unprecedented show of defiance to measures imposed by Ms Ardern's government, including vaccine mandates.


That protest ended with police intervention, which drew violence and mass arrests as fleeing protesters threw bricks at officers and set fire to tents and trees.


COVID-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall said vaccine mandates and the government's communication would be reviewed:

"That captures the ability to see whether mandates were an appropriate tool and those issues of a social licence."

The opposition National Party welcomed the announcement, while the Greens labelled it disappointingly narrow in scope.


Both parties want a specific inquiry into the economic response, given rollercoaster house prices and spiralling interest rates among COVID-19's tumultuous effects.


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