Govt rejects criticism over Auckland boundary decisions

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ
Changes to the Covid-19 plan affected the Auckland boundary decision, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins say, rejecting criticism over Auckland's ongoing isolation.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield this morning told a select committee it was believed the extended timeframe would not mean greatly increased risk.

"The advice from my team was that the difference of a week or two in terms of just pushing the vaccination rate up just one or two more percentage points was not, from a public health perspective ... was not material in terms of the risk," he said.

Indeed, an affidavit he presented to the Waitangi Tribunal, which is investigating the Covid-19 response, showed the ministry's advice was initially that Auckland's enforced boundary should come down at the same time as the traffic light system kicked in.

National's leader Christopher Luxon this morning criticised the decision to keep the boundary up in the face of that advice, and argued there was no need for the border to remain.

He continued that criticism when heading into the debating chamber this afternoon.

"It's another week to go before we actually - in theory, maybe, possibly - get out of that border scenario. All I'm saying tonight is that given the fact there are small businesses across Auckland ... we shouldn't just let this thing go on for another week."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ
National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ
He said he fully understood the hardship people in Auckland had been going through but there was no need for the boundary any longer.

Fellow opposition party leader, ACT's David Seymour, was similarly outraged.

"People are missing funerals, people are missing business opportunities, people are missing loved ones because this government does not follow public health advice, it follows its own political advice," he said.

"I don't think we can ever again believe Jacinda Ardern when she's said she's following public health advice. Now we know she had some public health advice and she decided to lock us down anyway.

"She should also tell the police to cancel the Northland checkpoints because Ashley Bloomfield says the Auckland border has done its job and there's no danger of people travelling out of Auckland."

Te Pāti Māori leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer also weighed in.

"This is a government that hasn't followed a whole lot of advice - Māori health experts, for example - and this is the situation that we have: a government and certainly has taken a very dictatorial approach in its public health response with Covid."

Ardern, however, said more context was needed about the timing of when Dr Bloomfield's advice was given.

"At that point, the traffic light was due to come in at the point when everyone had reached 90 percent ... we subsequently brought it in earlier," she said.

"His advice was when we had a different timeframe for moving into the framework."

Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone
Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ
She denied ignoring the advice of health officials.

"All through the pandemic we have taken on board their advice but our view was there was a way we could add an extra layer of reassurance that could cover the rest of New Zealand."

She struck back during Question Time when Luxon raised the decision.

Luxon: "What advice has she had on the number of businesses that have gone under, or the additional costs to the economy, as a result of her decision to keep the Auckland border closed despite being advised by Dr Bloomfield that there was no public health justification for it?"

Ardern: "The member is misinterpreting or in fact possibly not even reading the Director-General's statements. He talked about there no longer being a need for a hard enforced border ... at that point the CPF (the Covid Protection Framework, or Traffic Light system) came in - likely in mid-Dec.

"So it is incorrect to claim that we have kept the boundary longer than we were advised to by [the Ministry of] Health. What it is fair to point out is when we changed that boundary, Health said we could simply lift it. Our view was that the rest of New Zealand would appreciate additional measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 - but, Mr Speaker, it would be in keeping with the member [Luxon]'s 'let it rip' strategy with Covid."

She said she would not open the boundary tonight, because it "has protected the rest of New Zealand from being part of a delta outbreak ... the reason we have not seen an outbreak beyond that border that has been beyond measure unable to be controlled. So to Aucklanders again, we all thank you".

Hipkins was also adamant the context surrounding the timing of decisions was important.

"The decision to remove the boundary was actually made about two weeks earlier than the decisions around the moving to the traffic light framework - and we'd already publicly signalled that at the time - so we made that decision based on the balance of advice that we received."

He said Dr Bloomfield's advice was based on the assumption that the traffic light framework would only kick in at 90 percent double-dosed in Auckland.

"And in fact, you know, Counties Manukau is still I think chasing those last few to get to the 90 percent double vaccinated marker and we've already moved.

"It's perhaps unfair on Dr Bloomfield to single out just one part of the advice without looking at how it connected with the rest of it."

He also noted that it was not just Ministry of Health advice that Cabinet considered.

"I wouldn't say we ignored the advice at all, in fact we weigh up all of the advicve we receive from Health, from other arms of the government ... when we're making these decisions we're talking reasonably frequently with some of the epidemiologists around the country, professor Skegg and his group, and others. So we were getting a range of different advice there.

"We have been cautious, we want to slow the spread out of Auckland ... we also did want to see those vacciantion rates really getting up around that 90 percent mark."

Hipkins later told Checkpoint there would be a check-in on each region's traffic light settings before Christmas.

"Hospitalisations look encouraging and we're seeing case numbers turning down. but look there's still a bit of water to flow under the bridge."

With eased restrictions under the new Covid-19 Protection Framework, officials wanted to be sure there were no signs of surges and high levels of testing would help determine that, he said.

Although advice from the ministry indicated that ICU capacity would be more important to consider in traffic light settings than just case numbers in the community.

"One of the things we'll be looking at in cases is where those cases are and what community we're seeing increased case numbers in," Hipkins said. "And we know that some communities, particularly the unvaccinated ... if we see outbreaks in those communities, we know that's likely to flow through to greater pressure on the ICU end of the system.

While some Covid-19 testing and vaccination staff would be on a break over summer, he said he had been given reassurance that vaccines and tests would still be widely available across the country.

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