Part 1: Introduction

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

In 2020, New Zealand was internationally considered to have done well in preventing the worst impacts of Covid-19. Case numbers and deaths per capita were low compared with other countries, and our economy recovered faster.6

New Zealand’s geographic isolation and ability to control its borders delayed the virus’s arrival. This gave the Government time to monitor other countries’ experiences, and these informed its decisions on how to respond.

The Ministry of Health led the public health response to Covid-19. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) supported the Ministry and carried out civil defence emergency management activities, such as co-ordinating welfare services.

Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission (Te Kawa Mataaho) provided workforce support to public organisations and their employees. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) oversaw the wider all-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was in line with its responsibilities for leading the national security system and co-ordinating government action to deal with significant risks to New Zealand.

In this report, when we refer to the all-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we mean the central government agencies7 involved in that response.

Why we did this audit

During 2020, many public servants were involved in the all-of-government response. They carried out significant work to help keep New Zealanders safe, rapidly and under huge pressure. This involved working in new ways and in new roles in a highly uncertain and difficult environment. The extent of this has not always been visible to the public.

We carried out this audit because we consider it important to learn from the experience of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – and to reflect on what New Zealand could have done and could still do better.

We wanted to provide Parliament and the public with an independent account of how the all-of-government response was implemented and how it evolved during 2020. This was the first and, in some ways, most challenging year of the response.

The response was large, complex, and constantly changing. This meant there was a high risk of mistakes and inefficiencies. However, it also meant that there was potential for innovation and effective new ways of working.

We wanted to:

  • document the key strengths and weaknesses of the all-of-government response during 2020;
  • provide assurance about whether adequate and appropriate actions were taken to strengthen the response as it evolved; and
  • provide observations about improvements that, in our view, should be considered in any future Covid-19 responses.

We were also interested in insights from the Covid-19 response that could help the Government prepare for, and respond to, other emergencies and crises.

What we looked at

We looked at how the Government responded to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and what it did to adapt and improve its response during 2020.

Our work focused on DPMC’s role in overseeing the all-of-government response. We looked at what it did to co-ordinate and lead the response. This included identifying how DPMC ensured that the response remained fit-for-purpose to reduce the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We wanted to provide a view on how agencies and officials:

  • used pre-established plans, guidance, and requirements for responding to a pandemic; and
  • carried out the roles, responsibilities, and activities expected of them when responding to a pandemic.

To do this, we looked at:

  • how ready New Zealand was for a pandemic before Covid-19 emerged, including the arrangements that were meant to help agencies plan for, and respond to, a pandemic; and
  • how existing emergency management and pandemic preparations were implemented or modified to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We also looked at the mechanisms used to help identify and implement improvements to the all-of-government response as it unfolded. This included looking at how officials recorded and addressed issues, risks, and lessons.

We mostly focused on what took place during 2020. However, we also looked at some activities in 2021 that showed how the response had been improved before the Delta and Omicron variants arrived in New Zealand. We expect that other reviews will look closely at the all-of-government response in 2021 and beyond.

What we did not look at

We did not assess the response’s overall effectiveness. We did not examine:

  • the Government’s policy decisions (for example, to close borders, implement Alert Levels, or fund specific initiatives);
  • the role of local government or non-government organisations; or
  • regional arrangements for responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although we describe some readiness and response activities that the Ministry of Health and other agencies carried out, our audit did not focus on these organisations. We did not assess the effectiveness of the work that they or multi-agency workstreams did, such as managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), welfare, or public communications.

How we carried out this audit

We reviewed documents that DPMC provided. These included minutes of leadership meetings, internal memos, dashboards, reviews, Ministerial correspondence, Cabinet papers, and material about pandemic preparedness produced before and during the Covid-19 response.

We also interviewed key senior officials involved in the all-of-government response, including staff from DPMC, NEMA, the Ministry of Health, and secondees from other agencies.

Structure of this report

In Part 2, we describe the arrangements to prepare for, and respond to, a pandemic that were in place before Covid-19 emerged.

In Part 3, we describe how ready New Zealand was for a pandemic before Covid-19 emerged.

In Parts 4 to 6, we outline key aspects of the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic during 2020.

In Part 7, we provide an overview of mechanisms used to identify and implement improvements to the all-of-government response to Covid-19 during 2020.

In Part 8, we make observations about what could be done to strengthen New Zealand’s ongoing readiness and response arrangements for the Covid-19 pandemic and other disruptive events.

Appendix 1 is a timeline that shows when key groups and functions of the all-of-government response were active in 2020.

Appendix 2 sets out key groups that are mentioned in our report and lists their members.

6: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2022), OECD economic surveys: New Zealand 2022, at

7: In this report, we use the term agencies to primarily mean central government agencies and non-public service departments (that is, the New Zealand Police, New Zealand Defence Force, and the Parliamentary Counsel Office). In some instances we use departments to be consistent with legislation.