Auditor-General’s overview

Co-ordination of the all-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

Before Covid-19 emerged, the last time New Zealand had experienced a global pandemic of this scale was in 1918. Since then, our country has suffered the impacts of a wide range of emergencies.1

New Zealand remains vulnerable to many hazards and risks, and it is inevitable that we will have to respond to more adverse events.

The public relies on government to appropriately resource and actively maintain arrangements for dealing with emergencies and other crises.2

Before Covid-19 emerged, the Ministry of Health and other government agencies had systems, frameworks, legislation, and plans in place to help prepare for, and respond to, a pandemic. Some of these arrangements had been strengthened after several new infectious diseases were identified as potential pandemic risks to New Zealand.3

In 2020, the National Risk Register included a pandemic as one of 42 nationally significant risks. Threats to biosecurity and human health, including pandemics, were also one of the Government’s 16 National Security Intelligence Priorities for government agencies to monitor.

Even so, the first year of the all-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic was a steep learning curve.

I decided that it was important to take an independent look at what happened during the Covid-19 response in 2020. This was to understand how resources and efforts across the public sector were co-ordinated as the pandemic unfolded. I was interested in how officials identified and implemented improvements to the response as it developed, and the lessons from the response that might help New Zealand better prepare for future crises.

My audit focused on the central government co-ordination of the response. We did not look at the operational arrangements for response activities such as Covid-19 testing, contact tracing, or managed isolation and quarantine. Other reviews have looked at these aspects of the response and those reports are publicly available.

Although my audit was focused on what took place in 2020, I considered it necessary to understand New Zealand’s pre-existing emergency management and pandemic preparations, and our general state of readiness for a pandemic before Covid-19. I have also set out some of the improvements to readiness and response arrangements that were carried out in 2021 before the Delta and Omicron variants arrived in New Zealand.

What we found

It is fair to say that no system or plan could have fully prepared New Zealand for the impact of Covid-19. I did not expect to find that the response was straightforward. It is inevitable that, in these circumstances, things would not always go as planned.

Many public servants worked extraordinary hours in extraordinary circumstances to help keep New Zealanders safe and to mitigate the pandemic’s other impacts. Officials were resourceful and showed initiative. They faced a complex task, prolonged uncertainty, and constant pressure. The ability of public servants to work together under significant stress was, and continues to be, critical to the success of the response.

The ongoing nature of the Covid-19 response has been a particular challenge. Work to prepare New Zealand for the next wave of Covid-19, or other disruptive events of this nature, must consider how to manage an extended response in a more sustainable way. We cannot just rely on good people. We need a better level of overall preparedness.

New Zealand could have – and should have – been better prepared

Some of New Zealand’s national security, emergency management, and health system arrangements were not suitable for dealing with the specific characteristics of Covid-19. Before the emergence of Covid-19, there were pandemic-related plans in place, but some documents were outdated and confusing, and many people told us that there was not enough practical guidance on how to implement the plans. No central mechanism ensured that agencies had developed, co-ordinated, or regularly updated pandemic plans.

Recommendations from previous reviews of how prepared New Zealand was for a public health emergency (including pandemic simulation exercises) had not been fully implemented.

Many people working in the all-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including senior officials, had limited understanding of pre-existing emergency management arrangements. Governance of nationally significant risks, including pandemics, needed improvements.

All these factors could have affected the coherence and efficiency of the early Covid-19 response activities.4

Officials had to keep adjusting the Covid-19 response

Officials used the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan and Co-ordinated Incident Management System framework as starting points for responding to Covid-19. They quickly adapted arrangements as they judged necessary – for example, changes were made to how the lead agency approach for responding to emergencies was used, and officials set up new structures to manage the response.

These arrangements were largely effective. However, they were not designed to be enduring, and they contributed to confusion and tensions between agencies. There were some gaps and duplication. These took time to resolve. Co-ordinating information and advice was often challenging.

Changes to ways of operating were not always well communicated to people involved in the response, and many considered that the arrangements were complex. One review found that “agencies felt that the system was complicated to the point where they could not draw it”.5

Although officials made efforts to continually enhance the response, for much of 2020 there were no consistent systems or processes for managing cross-agency risks to the response. Processes for routinely identifying, documenting, and implementing improvements were unclear.

New Zealand was better prepared for outbreaks of Covid-19 by the end of 2020

In December 2020, Cabinet approved longer-term arrangements to provide a more structured and sustainably resourced system response to Covid-19. These arrangements were designed to be less reactive and established clearer roles, responsibilities, and ways of working.

Cabinet also gave the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) a formal mandate to lead the co-ordination of the all-of-government response. DPMC had in effect been doing this since March 2020. However, the formal mandate provided additional clarity.

Steps were also taken to improve assurance. These included setting up a Covid-19 Chief Executives’ Board and plans to include a continuous improvement function in DPMC’s Covid-19 Group.

These decisions, along with improved planning for resurgence of Covid-19, meant that New Zealand was better prepared for further Covid-19 outbreaks by the end of 2020. However, the outbreaks of Delta and Omicron in 2021 underscored the continued need for good governance, effective mechanisms for testing preparedness, and for making ongoing improvements in a timely way.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call

By mid-2022, Covid-19 had become widespread in our communities. By October 2022, the Government had announced that New Zealand could safely move to the next phase of the Covid-19 response and lifted most restrictions.

However, now is not the time to become complacent. In my view, the Government must demonstrate that it is taking action to avoid what the World Health Organization warns all countries against – a cycle of “panic then forget” when it comes to responding to emergencies.

DPMC told us in July 2022 that it expects the Covid-19 Group’s involvement in the Covid-19 response to reduce over time, as the all-of-government response system moves to a decentralised governance and operating model.

The lessons from this pandemic cannot be lost in the myriad of priorities that the public sector is tasked with. I urge the Government to consider how it will ensure that this experience means we are better prepared for the next emergency or crisis.

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, particularly for events of the scale and complexity of a global pandemic. Implementation of improvements should be monitored and reported to the public.

In my view, the public sector needs a much greater focus on risk reduction and preparedness. This involves, among other things, ensuring that appropriate risk assessment and mitigations are in place.

The public sector also needs to engage more with the public about emergency management. This includes listening to the public’s views and expectations and testing the public’s appetite for risk. I note that DPMC has started to promote these types of conversations as part of its current work looking at long-term national security risks.

None of this will happen without deliberate and sustained focus, strong leadership, and appropriate investment. Changes must be prioritised to ensure that we are 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.

In June 2022, we provided our draft report to DPMC, the National Emergency Management Agency, Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission, and the Ministry of Health. In response to our report, these agencies told us that they continue to take steps to help ensure that lessons will be learned from the Covid-19 response.

New Zealanders need to know these steps will be effective. In 12 months, I will seek an update on progress to address the recommendations that I make in this report.

I am pleased to see that the Government has now announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into its Covid-19 response. There is still much to learn, including from the second and third years of the Government’s response, and we should not miss this opportunity.

I thank the many people who contributed to this report, including those from a range of agencies who spoke to us about their involvement in the all-of-government response.

Lastly, I want to again acknowledge the efforts of public servants in the response to Covid-19, and the commitment they have shown to mitigating the worst impacts of the pandemic to keep New Zealanders safe.

Nāku noa, nā

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General | Tumuaki o te Mana Arotake

8 December 2022

1: We use the term emergency to refer to a situation that may cause loss of life, injury, illness, distress, or endangers the safety of the public or any part of New Zealand. For a full definition, see the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002.

2 We use the term crisis in places to refer to conditions of large scale, high intensity, or great complexity, and that disturb the usual functioning of society and the economy. An emergency can also be a crisis.

3 These pandemic risks included Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Avian Influenza in 2004, Swine Influenza in 2009, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2012.

4: I have previously noted shortcomings in the Government’s pandemic preparedness. See Office of the Auditor- General (2020), Ministry of Health: Management of personal protective equipment in response to Covid-19, at

5: Kitteridge, R and Valins, O (2020), Second rapid review of the Covid-19 all-of-government response, at