Coronavirus: Iwi roadblocks gone by level 2 - police

Police say they're hoping to reduce the number iwi checkpoints in Northland to zero by the time the country lifts to pandemic level 2.

A group calling itself the Te Tai Tokerau Border Control has been trying to stop people breaking guidelines against travel outside local areas and keep outsiders out of the region.

Former MP Hone Harawira set up the group in March after claiming backpackers and tourists were "rolling into Pak'nSave without protective face masks and without self-isolating".

Police later said the roadblocks had no legal power to stop anyone, but rather than shut them down right away, police took a softer approach and decided to work with the volunteers. 

"Some of these isolated communities didn't have access to immediate medical services. The issues that they discussed were about the low immunity levels of their people, of their elderly, and of their pakeke [adults]," Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha told RNZ.

Despite criticism from MPs such as National Party leader Simon Bridges and ACT's David Seymour, the checkpoints have reportedly had support from local councils.

Even so, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster says their days are numbered. There were between 30 and 50 during level 4, he told The AM Show on Monday, and only seven now we're under level 3.

"The seven that are left have a police presence, and that police presence means they are not in any way unlawful. 

"We are continuing to work with those communities to reduce them down to zero at the point we are moving down to level 2." 

But there have been questions about whether police even have the legal power to enforce lockdown restrictions, including breaking up mass gatherings and stopping people from non-essential travel. 

Thousands have been charged with breaching lockdown restrictions, and nearly 700 gatherings reported in just 24 hours this past weekend. 

NZME reports a Crown Law opinion shared with top police officials suggests they had "little or no power" to enforce lockdown restrictions before Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield issued orders under the Health Act in early April. Even now, experts have reportedly queried whether the orders are lawful.

"Whether that was because the lockdown was based on the wrong legislation or because the drafting of the initial section 70 notice was inadequate, incompetence, in the Beehive or at the Ministry of Health, has put frontline police officers on shaky legal ground," Seymour said on Monday.

"There are now serious questions about whether police officers exceeded their legal authority in carrying out checkpoints, arrests and shutting down businesses. The public needs to be assured that, during the early days of the alert level 4 lockdown, police were acting within the law and not simply operating on the basis of the Government's public statements."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told NZME she was confident police had been exercising their powers lawfully, and it was up to the Attorney-General whether to release the Crown Law advice the police received.

She said any roadblocks that didn't have a police presence would definitely be illegal. 

Level 3 is currently in place until May 12. The Opposition has called for it to be shifted to level 2 immediately to minimise the economic impact, while the Government says getting rid of the disease completely first would be the best option, long-term.