Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is guaranteeing Aucklanders will be able to travel “through summer” and reunite with family for Christmas.
However, the details about how exactly that will happen, who will be able to travel and from where, and any testing or vaccination requirements aren’t yet clear.
“We will have Aucklanders able to travel through summer and they will be able to reunite with family for Christmas,” Ardern told Q+A’s Jack Tame.
She said officials were now trying to figure out how to move 30,000 to 40,000 people safely through Auckland’s land border in a way that wasn’t “logistically challenging” for those travelling and for those operating it.
Hard borders around regions will not be a feature of a highly-vaccinated New Zealand in the future, she added.
“But it is something that we have now. While we are in what is admittedly a tricky transition period, [the border around Auckland] is helping us contain the outbreak while we vaccinate and keep people safe.
“That presents a logistical challenge and we’ve been open about that.”
Some of those logistical challenges played out in the public arena in the past week.
It began on Wednesday morning. On ZM, Ardern confirmed the border around Auckland would likely remain in place over the summer holidays.
However, fully vaccinated people may be able to travel beyond the city, Ardern told ZM.
She said a system needed to be designed that “allows people to move safely”, regardless of vaccination coverage outside of Auckland.
By that evening Covid-19 Response Minister told RNZ’s Checkpoint the Government was exploring an option that would see the days Aucklanders would be allowed to leave the region “spread”.
“It might be that people get allocated a time in which they can travel ,” Hipkins told RNZ.
A spokesperson for Hipkins then clarified to 1News on Wednesday night “no decisions have been made” yet, but that options the Government was considering included the use of vaccine certificates and Covid-19 testing for those travelling beyond Auckland.
On Thursday, National's Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop called the suggestion for allocated travel times the "stupidest idea I have ever heard" .
By Friday, when asked about travel arrangements over the summer, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said: “The speculation on different things [the Government] might be considering is kind of what’s happened this week, so I’m going to resist doing that.”
Ardern also wouldn’t give any details about logistics on Sunday morning and told Q+A she wanted to wait for confirmation about what was being done first.
Why did Auckland move to Alert Level 3?
As case numbers continue to rise in Auckland, Ardern said she stood by the Government’s initial decision to move Auckland to Alert Level 4, then to Level 3.
She said the move to the highest alert level in August was driven by the fact Delta’s entry point from the border wasn’t entirely clear.
As for the easing of restrictions in Auckland on September 21 while it was still recording a handful of Covid-19 cases a day, she said New Zealand had managed to snuff out outbreaks in Level 3 before.
But, she noted that the highly infectious Delta was “behaving differently”.
“The biggest determining factor in that decision [to move Auckland to Level 3] was the advice we were receiving from our public health team and not just here in Wellington … but the public health team in Auckland,” she said.
Ardern said at the time of the decision “there was a very strong view that any change in restrictions in Auckland may not necessarily materially affect the area in which we were already seeing that outbreak occur and exist”.
“[Alert Level 4] is not designed to be used for prolonged periods of time so we made that decision on the step down on the basis of advice from health officials,” she said.
“You are only able to maintain compliance for a particular period of time before you start to see issues . We have to weigh all of that up.”
On the day alert levels were dropped, Māori made up 13 per cent of all Covid-19 cases in the outbreak. That’s now at 36 per cent. The Māori vaccination rate at the time was 26 percentage points behind when compared to all ethnicities.
When asked if her Government would go down in history as having lowered restrictions while Māori vaccination rates lagged, and the impact that has had on Maori case numbers, Ardern rejected the premise.
“I’ve had strong calls to ease more quickly and more rapidly. But, we have moved very cautiously … to do everything we can to protect people,” Ardern said.
She said the Government had consistently taken a “people first” approach, but that it was having to weigh up people’s mental health, economic livelihoods, and family safety with pandemic restrictions.
Even as New Zealand reached some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, it still kept some of its restrictions, she said.