Auditor-General, John Ryan says key emergency management agencies must act to improve the nation’s ongoing Covid-19 response and readiness for future crises.
In a new report, Auditor-General John Ryan examined how the public sector’s response to Covid-19 was co-ordinated in the critical first year of the pandemic, and how officials made improvements to this as the pandemic unfolded.
“It is fair to say that no system or plan could have fully prepared New Zealand for Covid-19’s impact,” said Mr Ryan.
“I did not expect to find that the response was straightforward or perfect. It is inevitable that, in these circumstances, things would not always go as planned.”
The Auditor-General acknowledged the effort of the many public servants who he said had “worked extraordinary hours in extraordinary circumstances to help keep New Zealanders safe and to mitigate the pandemic’s other impacts”.
Their ability to work together under significant stress was, and continues to be, critical to the success of the response. But we cannot just rely on good people. We need a better level of overall preparedness, he said.
“New Zealand could and should have been better prepared for Covid-19,” said Mr Ryan.
“Before it emerged, there were shortcomings in our national security, emergency management, and health systems that could have affected the effectiveness and efficiency of the response. Some of these shortcomings arose because recommendations from previous reviews had not been fully implemented.”
To learn from this experience, Mr Ryan said the Government should already be making substantive and enduring changes to ensure New Zealand is better prepared for the next emergency or crisis.
“In my view, we must avoid what the World Health Organization calls a cycle of ‘panic then forget’ when it comes to responding to emergencies,” he said.
“As a country, we rely on government to appropriately resource and actively maintain arrangements for dealing with emergencies and other crises. New Zealanders need assurance that regularly reviewed strategies and plans are in place to deal with these types of events.
“Plans should be regularly tested to ensure that they are suitable, and improvements should be implemented, monitored, and reported to the public. The public sector also needs a much greater focus on risk reduction and preparedness, and to engage more with the public about emergency management.
“None of this will happen without deliberate and sustained focus, strong leadership, and appropriate investment. Changes must be prioritised to ensure that we are better prepared for the next major emergency or crisis. We know that this will occur – even if we do not know when or what it will be.”
The Auditor-General said he will seek an update on progress to address the report’s recommendations in a year’s time.
“I am pleased to see that the Government has recently announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into its Covid-19 response. We hope this report will be a useful source of information for the inquiry to consider and is helpful to its work. There is still much to learn, including from the later years of the Government’s response, and we should not miss this opportunity,” said Mr Ryan.
“However, work to improve the country’s emergency preparedness and our ongoing Covid-19 response should already be under way. We should not wait until mid-2024, when the Royal Commission’s report is due, to see the changes that we already know are required to be implemented.”