Graham Adams: Should we have a Royal Commission of Inquiry into our Covid-19 response?

Graham Adams: Should we have a Royal Commission of Inquiry into our Covid-19 response?

In mid-April, as New Zealand entered its fourth week of alert level 4, the Prime Minister warned us not to make comparisons with other countries over our Covid-19 pandemic response.

This extraordinary advice came after Simon Bridges had urged the government to adopt a less-stringent lockdown similar to those in some Australian states. He told media that Australia “has had very similar health outcomes, but they have had better economic ones”.

Ardern was not best pleased by the Leader of the Opposition challenging her authority — despite the fact that holding the government to account was pretty much his entire job description. Rather than discussing the merits of Bridges’ suggestion, she brushed it off by asserting that comparisons are odious. ”Very few countries have got their numbers down as low as we have so there’s few to learn from at this point, other than ourselves,” she said. “We’ll do it our way.”

In just the past week, however, two of Ardern’s closest lieutenants have disobeyed her advice — which must mean it is now officially okay to make comparisons (as long as you’re not the Leader of the Opposition, in which case you will probably be accused of “politicising” the issue).

A week ago, the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, told TVNZ’s Breakfast that Britain’s death toll — then standing at 36,914 — would have translated to 3500 deaths in New Zealand if we had adopted their approach. In fact, the true proportionate comparison would be less than 2800 — but the point remains that we have dodged a hail of bullets.

“So this is not a trivial thing we have avoided,” Dr Bloomfield said. “And so if we remember that and put that in perspective it’s really clear that we have done the right things.”

Very few will argue that our low death toll has been anything other than a triumph but although we have done “the right things” it doesn’t mean we couldn’t have done even better (including socially and economically) with a shorter or less-restrictive lockdown, say, or more efficient contact tracing or better preparedness for testing.

Dr Bloomfield’s comparison says nothing about whether our approach was the best one possible even though it was much, much better than Britain’s. To help establish that, we need to look at comparable countries that have done better than us and not just concentrate on those that have done worse.

Last Thursday, Winston Peters, in pressing for an immediate opening of the border with Australia, echoed the tenor of Bridges’ earlier comments by pointing out that some of its states have performed better than us. “Look at the Queensland results. Look at the Northern Territory results. They exceed ours,” he said.

Queensland provides the best comparison to New Zealand. Close to us geographically, it has an almost identical population of five million and a very similar median age of around 37. It has also had a less restrictive lockdown and has had fewer confirmed Covid-19 cases; its toll of only seven deaths is less than a third of our 22.

So as well as using the UK as a comparison — which is not only in a different hemisphere and season than us, but has more than 67 million people crammed into an area smaller than New Zealand — Dr Bloomfield could have just as easily added: “If we look at Queensland, it’s really clear we could have achieved the same or better results with a softer lockdown. With hindsight, we went too hard.”

It’s very unlikely, of course, that anyone in the government or health bureaucracy directing our pandemic response will want to revisit decisions made in the fog of war and to assess what we might have done better. And there will be very little public enthusiasm for retrospective analysis either, as shown by the nearly 90 per cent of those polled last month who endorsed the lockdown.

It’s also very clear after the odium heaped on Simon Bridges for questioning the government’s actions that the new Leader of the Opposition, Todd Muller, won’t be criticising the government’s initial pandemic response either, lest he too ends up on the outer reaches of the National Party like his predecessor, who is now happy — out of necessity — to be the MP for Tauranga.

Nevertheless, the problem we are facing is not only how we manage to leave the lockdown behind but what we should do if we face a second — or third — wave of infections and deaths in the months and years ahead. Or, for that matter, a pandemic spread by a completely different virus.

Camille Stoltenberg, head of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, told media last week that Norway “could possibly have achieved the same effects and avoided some of the unfortunate impacts” by not pursuing a full lockdown. She said that if infection levels rise again — or a second wave hits in the winter — everyone needs to be brutally honest about whether the lockdown was effective.

For the same reason, David Seymour is calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry that would report before the start of next year’s flu season. As he put it, “Covid-19 may return next year and we can’t afford to shut the economy down again. Being unprepared for the first major pandemic in 100 years may be understandable but repeating our mistakes if it comes back next year is totally unacceptable.”

For those who say setting up an inquiry now is far too soon, it is worth remembering that a royal commission examining the Canterbury earthquakes was established in May 2011, three months after the February earthquake. A royal commission into the Christchurch mosque murders began considering evidence just two months after the attacks.

The effects of the pandemic dwarf both these events.

Seymour has suggested topics that need to be covered by an inquiry include whether we should have closed our borders earlier; whether our pandemic plan was world class, like Taiwan’s; whether the national PPE stockpile was adequate and distribution was sufficiently organised; the state of our contact tracing and testing system; and whether the rules set by the government appropriately balanced Covid-19 elimination with other goals.

With the Reserve Bank predicting the largest decline in annual GDP in at least 160 years as a result of our lockdown and closed borders, and the government forecast to add $140 billion more debt by 2024, only devout Ardern loyalists will insist that a high-powered and independent inquiry is not needed.

As David Seymour says: “We need to take a step back from ‘crisis thinking’ where we rally around the leader, and consider the possibility that we may not have got it all right, others may have done better and we could too. That requires an independent perspective.”

Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

Image: NIAID


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.