Enquiring into Covid Inquiries

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
9 December, 2022

The Royal Commission announced this week will not help voters provide better-informed brickbats or bouquets in 2023.

The inquiry will focus instead on lessons for future pandemics and will report back well after the election.

In a better world, the Inquiry’s work would have already begun. An interim report would help inform voters’ decisions. And a final report would draw necessary lessons for the ongoing pandemic response and any future ones.

But a government expecting a report shortly ahead of an election would be sorely tempted to restrict the terms of reference to prevent discovery of failures – and consequently limit the Commission’s ability to learn from those failures.

Even with a 2024 deadline, the Inquiry’s terms of reference may constrain.

The Inquiry’s scope allows it to assess whether overall strategies were effective in limiting the spread of the virus. But whether those strategies would pass a broader cost-benefit assessment seems not in-scope.

Our organisation strongly supported elimination when vaccines were not yet available. On 17 March 2020, this newsletter urged that “we must stamp out the virus at all cost”.

But elimination approaches were not uncontested and became more contested over time. They can and should be more rigorously tested to better inform future strategies.

If some future variant or new virus warrants reimposing border controls and lockdowns, the kind of widespread support evident in March 2020 will again be needed.

Robust support for the strategy, with benefit of hindsight, would make it easier.

And whether a strategy makes sense also depends on the government’s capacity for execution.

Over the past years, the Initiative explained how MIQ could safely scale up, how borders could open to countries that had achieved elimination, how vaccines elsewhere approved could be quickly authorised, and how testing systems could be improved.

The Commission will have much to examine. How it might interpret terms of reference exclusions of how strategies and measures “were implemented or applied in particular situations” is far from clear.

Unfortunately, opposition parties were not consulted on the Inquiry’s terms of reference or membership. Governments facing future pandemics and needing to trust in the Inquiry’s report may well include parties other than Labour.

New Zealand’s successes in early 2020 came, in part, from a cross-party approach bringing widespread agreement. That same approach would have provided stronger foundations for an Inquiry whose report is meant to guide the country through pandemics yet to come.

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