New Zealand’s government has established an independent advisory group to review its handling of the most recent coronavirus outbreak, and “sharpen” its ongoing pandemic response.
The Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, announced the formation of the body on Tuesday, following criticism of the government’s handling of a cluster of coronavirus cases in Auckland.
The city went into lockdown twice last month after confirmed cases were revealed to have defied stay-at-home orders, prompting the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to voice frustration with rule-breakers. That, in turn, led to criticism of the government’s communication and outreach strategy from South Auckland community leaders, its political opponents, and media.
Ardern told Radio New Zealand that plans for the body predated the recent outbreak, but the government had previously learned from independent reviews of its contact tracing systems and the implementation of its testing strategy. The new group would allow for “constant improvement work,” she said.
Hipkins said that uncovering the lessons from the South Auckland outbreak would be one of the first priorities.
“I imagine as they look at this most recent response there will undoubtedly be things that can be improved for next time and that’s exactly what we want them to do.
“I’ve already foreshadowed some of the things I want them to look at, like whether having four different categories of contacts was helpful or a hindrance.”
The opposition National party has welcomed the move, and in particular the scrutiny on the managed isolation and quarantine system, following breaches at the Pullman hotel early this year. “This is something that many people have been asking for, for some time,” Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said.
The group is tasked with advising on every aspect of the government’s Covid-19 response, including the strategic direction, communications with the public, and planning for an outbreak.
It will also oversee the implementation of previous reviews. Its chair, Sir Brian Roche, led the advisory committee on the testing strategy that – in a report released in December – criticised the health ministry for poor messaging and coordination.
Act party leader, David Seymour, said the group’s formation was an admission that many of the recommendations made in that report had not been adopted. He said that New Zealand’s Covid-19 response needs to be brought out from under the ministry of health’s “monopoly” and under “a multi-disciplinary, public and private taskforce”.
The Lowy Institute ranked New Zealand’s Covid-19 response as the best of any country in the world – with just 26 deaths – arguing that small nations, with populations smaller than 10 million people, and countries where political leaders are trusted, and which have effective state agencies, responded best to the pandemic.
Outreach and engagement are priorities for the new group, with the terms of reference making clear that the members will be expected to engage with wider stakeholders – including Māori iwi (tribes) and vulnerable communities – “to ensure that they have a system-wide view”.
The members under Roche are the former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, epidemiologist Phillip Hall, Māori health practitioner Dale Bramley, and Pacific and public health expert Debbie Ryan.
The Covid-19 Independent Continuous Review, Improvement and Advice Group will start work from 15 March, meeting at least twice a month until June next year.