WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand is launching a broad investigation into whether it made the right decisions in the fight against COVID-19 and how it can better prepare for future pandemics.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the coronavirus had posed the greatest threat to the country’s health and economy since World War II. She said now is the time to review the government’s response with the highest level of independent investigation.
Among the questions will be whether New Zealand initially took the right approach by imposing strict lockdowns and border quarantine restrictions in an attempt to completely eradicate the virus.
This zero-tolerance strategy was initially hailed internationally as a success as New Zealand’s death rate remained well below that of most other countries and people were able to continue their normal lives.
But over time, the downsides of the disposal approach became clearer as the economic and social costs mounted. Some citizens faced serious delays in returning home due to a bottleneck in border quarantine facilities.
The government finally abandoned its elimination approach in October 2021 after new, more contagious variants proved impossible to contain and people were given the opportunity to get vaccinated.
China is one of the few countries to pursue a zero tolerance policy. Experts say the approach is unsustainable in the long term and China has no exit strategy.
The New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry will be led by Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist and professor based in Australia. From early next year, he has 17 months to research and prepare a comprehensive report.
Ardern said detailing what worked in his response was essential to help the country deal with future pandemics.
“We didn’t have a playbook for dealing with COVID, but as a country we’ve come together in an amazing way, and we’ve saved lives and livelihoods,” she said. .
Minister for COVID-19 Response Dr Ayesha Verrall said one of the lessons was that having a prescriptive pandemic plan, like New Zealand’s flu-based plan before COVID- 19 didn’t knock, wasn’t very helpful.
“I imagine the lesson learned that just looking at the specs of a bug isn’t going to cut it,” Verrall said. “You have to look much wider.”