Coronavirus: Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship members who flouted rules should've faced harsher punishment - Winston Peters

Members of an Auckland church embroiled in the city's ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 have let down the team of five million by failing to abide by alert level protocol, says Winston Peters, and should have been taken to task "from the beginning".

The Deputy Prime Minister has berated members of the Mount Roskill Evangelical Fellowship, the church at the centre of Auckland's sub-clusters, for flouting the restrictions during level 3 lockdown. Thirty-three cases of COVID-19 have been connected to the Fellowship, which has also been linked to a second sub-cluster associated with several bereavement events. The Ministry of Health revealed that an infectious member had visited a mourning family during alert level 3, passing on the virus to several other people.

It was also revealed that members of the Fellowship had continued to congregate for services despite the city's latest lockdown, while some were reluctant to get tested. Auckland police confirmed they broke up a gathering at the church after 7pm on Saturday, August 15 - just three days after the city had re-entered level 3. 

The failure to comply with alert level restrictions has initiated discourse regarding religion amid the pandemic, with many highlighting that those of faith are more likely to show scepticism towards science-based evidence.

In an opinion piece published this week, a Newshub journalist who identifies as a Christian said it was disappointing - but not surprising - that the denial of science by a church community was behind Auckland's growing case numbers.

"For months, I've watched on in frustration and deep embarrassment as the country's most notorious and provocative Christian voices raged at limits on mass gatherings and others deliberately and arrogantly flouted the rules," he wrote, although adding that it's unfair to apportion blame on individuals or the church as a whole.

Last week, religious historian Professor Peter Lineham suggested that overseas influence and a desire to maintain a sense of community may be behind some religious institutions' reluctance to adhere to lockdown restrictions.

Deputy PM Winston Peters.
Deputy PM Winston Peters. Photo credit: Getty

Speaking to Magic Talk's Road to the Election host Mitch McCann on Sunday, Peters argued that the non-compliance had come at a heavy cost for Aucklanders.

He said the church should have been held to account for their actions "from day one".

"The so-called team of five million had to follow the rules. I know we can all have different arguments and disputes about the level of rules and surveillance, but when someone is defying science and gravity... and costing the country a fortune [with] businesses going out of business and people losing their work, the response of the Government should be, 'Here's what the systemic rules are, and you're going to abide by them - if you don't, here comes the cost'. We cannot allow this to go on."

The New Zealand First leader argued the Government was "too soft" on the church members who had flouted the rules, and that greater penalties should have been enforced following the revelations of non-compliance.

"We should tell them that if you're not going to abide by the rules then here come the punishments, and there are a whole host of them," he said.

"You will not carry on as though the whole country can foot, pay and undergo the sacrifice for this while you please yourself. It's just not right."

Earlier this week, it emerged that some members of the church may have deliberately failed to disclose close contacts of confirmed cases.

"There are certainly some within the cluster that perhaps don't accept or haven't previously accepted the science involved here," Health Minister Chris Hipkins explained.

"It would certainly appear that they were skeptical at the beginning. I think that a lot of work has been done with them since then."

Cabinet will rendezvous next week to discuss the possibility of transitioning to alert level 1. Although the country is currently under level 2, Auckland is technically sitting at 'level 2.5', with no more than 10 people permitted to socialise in any given setting. 

Peters says he will be contributing a "common-sense view" to next week's talks, noting that the South Island has not recorded a case of COVID-19 since April.

"I'll be taking to the conversation a common-sense view and I hope it prevails. It didn't last time and I'm sad about that," he said.

"I argued last time that there is no way you can possibly - medically or scientifically - argue for the South Island to be in [level] 2. There is no way you can argue for the rest of the North Island, outside of Auckland, to be involved in level 2."

Just four new cases of COVID-19 were recorded over the weekend, two each on Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

Sunday's cases - a new arrival in managed isolation and a healthcare worker at Auckland's quarantine facility, the Jet Park Hotel - marks the first time in more than a month that there have been no new community cases linked to the Auckland cluster.