NZ First disagrees with Cabinet over continuation of current Covid-19 investigation

Winston Peters speaks to the media following the Government's publication of the budget.

Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

Winston Peters says New Zealand First disagrees with the decision to allow Covid-19 research to continue in its current form and with its current president who he says risks a perception of bias.

The move marks the first use of “agree or disagree” provisions in coalition agreements.

Home Affairs Minister Brooke van Velden has been leading the process to widen the scope of the inquiry and on Tuesday afternoon announced it would mean a “second phase” focusing on matters of current public interest.

This would include:

  • Vaccine efficacy and safety
  • Extended lockdowns in Auckland and Northland
  • The extent of disruption to New Zealanders’ health, education and business

Last year, the commission delayed hearing public submissions until 2024 while the National-led coalition government reviewed their scope.

The government launched a public consultation in February on expanding the scope and what should now be included.

Van Velden said more than 13,000 submissions were received from the public and the second phase would begin in November, with the aim of delivering final recommendations by February 2026.

Brooke van Velden, ACT deputy leader

Brooke van Velden
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Elements of the second phase would be carried out in public, with current commissioners Tony Blakely and John Whitehead resigning in November after the first phase was delivered.

Peters announced the party’s position in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, saying NZ First supported establishing a “second phase” to the investigation.

“However, we do not agree with allowing the current investigation to continue simply as ‘phase one’ in its current form, with the current president remaining in place, and with his reporting period being further extended,” he said.

“We believe that ‘phase one’ of the Royal Commission is simply a continuation of the current investigation, which is too limited in scope and remains compromised by the current president’s direct involvement with the previous government’s administration and direct planning of the response to the Covid pandemic.

“New Zealand First campaigned on the fact that the current Royal Commission was nothing more than a political tool of the Labor Party, used to craft a message due to its lack of reach and the unsuitability of the commissioners. We believe the perception “The current president poses a reputational risk to the ‘phase one’ investigation.”

Peters said New Zealand should have a robust independent report on lessons learned from the Covid-19 response that could be used for future pandemics.

“New Zealand First respects Cabinet’s decision to invoke the ‘agree or disagree’ provisions in the coalition agreement,” he said.

The agreements with ACT and NZ First committed the government to expanding the scope of Covid-19 research.

Then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the response to the pandemic was announced in December 2022, saying it would be wide-ranging and examine the economic response, what can be learned from the pandemic and how it can be applied. to any future pandemic.

However, individual decisions and how policies were applied to individual cases or circumstances would be considered out of scope along with rulings and decisions of courts, tribunals and other agencies, private sector operations and the independent monetary policy committee of the Bank of the reserve.

Changes to judicial and parliamentary procedures due to the pandemic, nor the holding of the 2020 general elections, nor the effectiveness of vaccines, nor the “specific epidemiology” of the virus and its variants will be examined.

Chair Professor Tony Blakely said in December the commission welcomed the opportunity to work with the new government on what an expanded mandate would look like.

Van Velden said the Cabinet has agreed on several points as “indicative scope of the terms of reference for the second phase”:

  • Vaccine use during the pandemic, specifically mandates, approval processes, and safety, including monitoring and reporting of adverse reactions;
  • The social and economic disruption of New Zealand’s policy response, specifically the impacts on social division and isolation, health and education, and on inflation, debt and business activity, and the balance of these impacts against COVID-19 minimization and protection objectives;
  • Extended lockdowns in Auckland and Northland, specifically whether similar public health benefits could have been achieved with shorter lockdowns;
  • The use of partnerships with business and professional groups; and
  • The use of new technologies, methods and effective international practices.

RNZ has contacted Blakely for comment.

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