One of the leading architects of New Zealand's elimination strategy against COVID-19 has backed health officials' move to enlist gang leaders in the vaccine rollout.
Michael Baker is also calling for drug possession and use to be decriminalised, or for police to at least exercise more discretion in who they prosecute.
The outbreak of the Delta variant, once confined to Auckland, has started spreading south into Waikato. Reports have placed the blame on gang members flouting alert level restrictions.
The Ministry of Health has confirmed at least 18 known community cases of COVID-19 are gang members. Prominent Mongrel Mob leaders Sonny Fatupaito and Harry Tam have been given essential worker exemptions to enter Auckland to push the vaccine message "under strict Covid-19 protocols, enforced by health officials and the police", but they are exceptions. Any others travelling across boundaries are probably breaking the law.
"That's why I think the control measures in Auckland - which succeeded in stopping widespread transmission - at a certain point didn't work anymore," Dr Baker told RNZ on Thursday, saying transmission of the virus was now "entrenched… in marginalised groups who were not engaged with the response".
The National Party has criticised health officials' engagement with gang leaders to promote vaccination amongst their members.
"This is something that most New Zealanders will find quite unacceptable - particularly in light of the fact there are so many stories of people who can't get into Auckland," said police spokesperson Simeon Brown.
"When you look at where it is the epicentres, we keep talking about, a lot of it is in the gangs and actually, they've been spreaders, he's the leader, why hasn't he stopped it?" party leader Judith Collins said of Fatupaito.
Dr Baker said it was "critical" health officials had access to gang members, since that's where the need is right now.
"You engage with the organisation, you get their leaders to help. I'm sure they are concerned. I've spoken to some gang leaders and I know they're concerned about the wellbeing of their community."
Dr Baker has a history in drug harm minimisation. In the late 1980s he helped set up New Zealand's needle exchange programme, which in 2020 was credited with keeping New Zealand's HIV infection rates among the world's lowest.
He told RNZ the best move now would be to stop prosecuting drug possession and use, the threat of COVID-19 being much greater.
"We've had 30 years of experience with a harm minimisation approach. That means lining up all your Government agencies and making sure we're all on the same page - that's health, police, alcohol and drug services, MSD, Corrections, everyone else, and saying put aside some of our other agendas for a period, decriminalise drug use and possession for instance and focus on our number one national goal, which is stamping out this virus."
In 2019, the Misuse of Drugs Act was amended to give police discretion not to prosecute drug users if doing so wouldn't be in the public interest. While it led to a small decrease in convictions, ironically it led to a massive increase in warnings and non-court actions, and the disproportionate number of Māori being convicted hadn't changed.
Police have said the statistics didn't change much after the 2019 law change because the law change only codified what was already happening in the field.
"Police under the Misuse of Drugs Act have discretion about prosecution, so they can do this now," said Dr Baker. "I actually think police are very much on the same page with this strategy."
Police told Newshub they work with "partner agencies across Government to support all communities in the delivery of our COVID-19 response".
"Our operational response has seen a graduated approach to ensuring compliance from engagement, education and encouragement through to enforcement," a spokesperson said.
"As with all policing, officers continue to be able to use discretion when considering options for COVID 19 enforcement action.
"Any use of discretion would be based on the circumstances of the situation guided by the relevant COVID 19 restrictions, the Misuse of Drugs Act, the Solicitor-General’s prosecution guidelines, and police's prevention-first operating model.
"The delivery of our COVID-19 response will remain on supporting all New Zealanders and making sure they are safe, protected and informed."