This week the Prime Minister and the Minister for COVID-19 Response jointly announced the appointment of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into lessons learned from Aotearoa New Zealand's response to COVID-19 ("Royal Commission") – you can find the announcement here. Sitting at the top of the hierarchy of inquiries, Ministers reach for a Royal Commission of Inquiry for the most serious issues demanding review and answers.
This Royal Commission is about the lessons learned from the country's response to COVID-19 that should be applied for future pandemics. To learn lessons and make recommendations, the Royal Commission will rake over events between February 2020 and October 2022. The terms of reference include the following topics:
- the public health measures including border and community isolation requirements, vaccination, pharmacy and testing measures, pandemic modelling and surveillance, and the COVID-19 Alert Level and traffic light frameworks;
- ensuring goods and services reach those isolating, including government services like education and childcare;
- the immediate economic response to pandemics, in particular fiscal and monetary policy responses co-ordinated and implemented on a large scale and quickly, temporary financial support to individuals and businesses, and short termshort-term measures like exemptions to sustain particular industries;
- considering Māori interests and consistency with Te Tiriti o Waitangi; and
- considering the impact and differential support available to essential workers, populations, and communities that might be disproportionately affected by a pandemic.
Equally important, the terms of reference put issues out of scope, including:
- the operation of the private sector, except where the private sector delivers services integral to a pandemic response – a lot of businesses and NGOs will not fall in scope;
- particular clinical decisions made by doctors and public health authorities – so system-level lessons, not individual cases;
- the epidemiology of the COVID-19 virus and vaccine efficacy – no diversions into anti-vax and other conspiracy theories;
- recent reforms to the health system – so no re-litigation of the structure of the health system through an inquiry;
- process changes by Parliament, the courts, and the conduct of the 2020 general election.
The Royal Commission comprises:
- Prof Tony Blakely as Chairperson – epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne (New Zealand born and trained);
- Hon Hekia Parata – former Cabinet Minister in National-led government;
- John Whitehead CNZM – former Secretary to the Treasury (Chief Executive).
A Royal Commission with expertise in medicine, epidemiology, Māori and public policy, and economics gives a sense of where a lot of the lessons learned could focus.
The Royal Commission can begin hearing evidence on 1 February 2023 and must present its report to the Governor-General by 26 June 2024. That means that the Royal Commission will start but not report its findings before the 2023 general election.
As with all inquiries, the Royal Commission can set its own procedures within the parameters of the Inquiries Act 2013. Just now we do not know how the Royal Commission will conduct its proceedings, for example through formal public hearings, and witnesses under oath. Generally speaking, over its year and a half life the Royal Commission's will include:
- once the Royal Commission panel meets, decisions as to how it wants to hear evidence, and from whom, followed by any requests for written submissions, evidence, and witness appearances;
- designation of "core participants" – these organisations or persons will typically need to engage with the Royal Commission frequently and supply evidence multiple times;
- following evidence and deliberation, a draft report which will be shared with those the subject of findings to ensure natural justice;
- confidentiality orders for information presented – participants need to ask for orders otherwise all inquiry information becomes subject to release under the Official Information Act 1982 (the terms of reference direct the Royal Commission to take care with confidential information);
- reporting to the Governor-General, with the responsible Minister presenting the report to the House followed by debate.
What we know is that the Royal Commission will dig into events over a lengthy time period involving some of the most important decisions by New Zealand governments in the past century. It will necessarily involve a lot of documents, a lot of high-profile decisions, and will no doubt lead to recommendations that could endure for many decades. The Royal Commission is a serious endeavour and those who engage with it will need to prepare well.
If your organisation might need to participate in the Royal Commission starting on 1 February 2023, you should right now think about the application of the terms of reference to your organisation, and the relevant evidence you might hold. That means preserving briefings, memos, letters, emails, text messages, and Teams chats that could become evidence relevant to the Royal Commission. Preservation, central storage, and retrieval of the potential evidence will be essential. In time, as requests from the Royal Commission arrive, the documents will then need to be reviewed and redacted.
Russell McVeagh has experts in public inquiries who can assist if you need to participate in its proceedings, or if you think it may affect your work.
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