Coronavirus: Mt Roskill MP calls on trolls to stop abuse aimed at church, defends the naming of it

Mt Roskill's MP is calling on internet trolls to stop writing nasty comments on social media about the local church embroiled in COVID-19 controversy.

Forty-five community cases of COVID-19 are now linked to the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship church, making the so-called 'sub-cluster' one of New Zealand's largest clusters overall.

It's emerged in recent days that not only did police have to break up a prayer meeting at the church during Auckland's alert level 3 lockdown, but that some members of the church were sceptical of the seriousness of COVID-19 and reluctant to following testing and contact tracing protocol. Someone from the church also visited a bereavement event, unaware they had the virus and were spreading it

The national spotlight on the church has led to abuse towards the congregation on social media.

The local MP, Labour's Michael Wood, told Newshub that the comments were uncalled for. 

"It is true that there has been some of that kind of behaviour where some people have reacted to what is going on or what they think is going on," he said.

"We have had some pretty aggressive social media commentary. We have had a case of a church with a similar name but a different church getting very angry messages on its answerphone… none of that actually helps us with the public health problem."

Instead, Wood said, Kiwis can support the community by making sure they follow the alert level requirements - which in Auckland includes limiting gatherings to 10 people - and by sharing credible information. 

Enforcement may also be an option if necessary and police told Newshub on Thursday that church leaders had been warned that any further gatherings in breach of the rules "could result in prosecution".

Wood says we need to stop the blame game.

"By blaming and getting angry at other people, that might feel good in the moment, but it doesn't actually help us with the issue in hand."

Wood's comments were echoed by Labour minister David Parker who stressed that the "enemy" is the virus, not people. 

"At times some people have listened a bit too much to the conspiracy theories about compulsory vaccines or that it's not a serious disease. That's why the message was given to them, everyone's got to cooperate," he told The AM Show.

National's Simon Bridges agreed.

"People need to follow the rules... It was one person actually who has been at a family bereavement and spread it quite strongly. That's regrettable, but we don't want to get into blame."

There has been some suggestion that the church shouldn't have been specifically named, but Wood pushes back on that, praising the Ministry of Health's communication. 

"It has been important right throughout the way in which we have dealt with COVID-19 that the information has been out there in the open," he said. 

"I think it was appropriate that the particular location was named. That enabled people who were around that community to get the information and to know that they needed to go get tested.

"It was also important in this particular case that we were able to address the fact that there is a small number of people on the fringes of our society who are giving out inaccurate information, who are suggesting that maybe the virus isn't real, [and] people don't need to get tested."

By addressing the issue in a "proactive way", Wood says officials can emphasise how serious COVID-19 is and get key messages out there.

Anyone directly associated with the church has been asked to get retested for the virus. As of 8am on Thursday, labs had registered new tests for 64 percent of the congregation. An additional testing station has been set up at the Mt Roskill War Memorial.

The Ministry of Health says the sub-cluster growing around the bereavement "has come about as a result of a contact of a case having close contact with other people".

"This underscores the importance of close contacts following the public health advice they’re given which includes strict self-isolation even if they don’t have symptoms, and even if they have returned a negative test."

Wood said people from across Auckland attended the Mt Roskill church. He said it was a difficult time for the entire community. 

"It has been unsettling, it has been worrying for those people, and certainly, unsettling and worrying for people more generally in the community. 

"While it is not a Mt Roskill specific issue, the fact that the church is there with the name of Mt Roskill and it is in the media everyday, does create a little bit of anxiety in the community."