Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is confident residents of the stricken region will be able to resume interregional travel by early December.
As the epicentre of the ongoing outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant, Aucklanders are now enduring their 13th week of restrictions as the Government attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19. A strict boundary continues to ringfence the region, preventing anyone from entering or departing Auckland without an exemption proving their travel is for an essential purpose. Police-manned checkpoints are stationed on both the northern and southern borders to ensure motorists are not passing through without proof that their movement has been approved.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly promised Aucklanders that they will be able to escape the region for Christmas, with many desperate to reunite with friends and whānau in other parts of the country. However, the Government has remained tight-lipped on the details, including when exactly the border will be lifted, who will be permitted to travel, and how the influx of vehicles attempting to cross the boundary will be managed - without huge delays and significant congestion.
It's understood Aucklanders will be required to meet specific criteria in order to travel, such as being fully vaccinated or having proof of a negative test within the days prior to departure. Ardern on Monday indicated that a decision regarding the boundary will be made on Wednesday, with a plan expected to be revealed following a Cabinet meeting on Monday, November 29.
Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday morning, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said he is hopeful the boundary will be eased by early December, allowing Aucklanders to reunite with loved ones or escape for a much-needed break.
"What I hope and what I expect will come out of that [meeting] is a decision that sometime, pretty early in December, Aucklanders will be able to travel again. I understand the Government's position, it's pretty tough for them. You open the border up and Aucklanders leave to go across the rest of the country and guess what, they take COVID with them," he told The AM Show.
"The Prime Minister hasn't said it definitively, but she's said the decision will be made on the 29th - and the bottom line for her is that Aucklanders will be able to travel by Christmas."
While he understands it's a tough position for the Government, Goff noted that the high rates of vaccination among Aucklanders will provide an extra layer of protection - and should instill the Government with greater confidence that opening the border is the right move.
"We're also in a situation now where we have got a very high percentage of our population vaccinated, and you just cannot keep a third of your country locked down forever. There are businesses that are just on the edge and they can't go on much longer, the hospitality industry, they're looking forward to opening up," he said.
As of 11:59pm on Sunday, more than 95 percent of eligible residents under Auckland District Health Board (DHB) have received their first dose of the vaccine against COVID-19, with 89 percent fully vaccinated with both doses. It's understood about 4000 more vaccinations need to be administered before Auckland DHB hits the golden 90 percent target for second doses. Meanwhile, 93 percent of eligible residents under Waitemata DHB have had their first dose and 86 percent are fully vaccinated, while 91 percent of eligible residents under Counties Manukau DHB have had their first jab and 83 percent are fully vaccinated.
Goff reiterated high rates of vaccination are crucial to ensuring Auckland can reopen safely.
"When we open up, we want to do so in a way that doesn't take us down the track of other countries - whether it's Victoria or New South Wales across the ditch or a country like Ireland… same size as us, they've lost 5500 people [to COVID], and a whole lot of people who have suffered terribly with long COVID," he said.
"We want to do it safely, but we know we have to open up and vaccination is the key to do that."
Opening Auckland to the rest of New Zealand 'critical'
Goff told The AM Show that freedom of movement in and out of Auckland is critical for the Super City's prosperity and rebuilding the economy after weeks of restrictions on business and trade.
"It's important, it's critical, because the main supply chain lines go across that border," he said.
However, he remains uncertain as to how exactly the Government plans to manage the influx of Aucklanders desperate to escape the region after months of restrictions. He suggested conducting spot-checks at the border instead of vetting each and every vehicle for proof of vaccination or a negative test result.
"What's the Government going to do to try and slow the spread of COVID? Boxing Day, my guess is there's going to be 60,000 cars going across that boundary, so you're not going to have a checkpoint stopping every car, you just can't do it," Goff said.
"Maybe they'll look at things like spot-checks with a hefty fine that you have to either be double-vaccinated or you have to have a [negative] test within the last five days… that may be one way of doing it."
He reiterated that Aucklanders can be confident a summer getaway will be possible in the not-too-distant future. But in the meantime, everyone should be doing their bit, he said - such as getting vaccinated and adhering to the current restrictions.
"Look, the Government's not there trying to punish us, it's trying to say what's the balance between keeping us safe and giving us back the freedoms we're all very keen on… I think that balance will be that by early December, we will be able to travel," he said.
"I think the Prime Minister's been quite clear… Auckland has been carrying [the weight] for the rest of the country and it will be time at Christmas and over summer to open those borders again."
On Tuesday morning, the New Zealand Herald reported that it understands the regional boundary will remain in place for the next month before restrictions are eased in time for Christmas.
Auckland's border could reopen by the middle of December, the Herald reports - after New Zealand has entered the Government's three-phase COVID-19 Protection Framework, a 'traffic light system' based on varying levels of risk posed by the virus.
While there would still be some policing of the border, it would be a soft boundary with spot-checks, the outlet reports, rather than vetting every car at the checkpoints. Harsher boundaries would also still be possible for some regions - such as Northland - if vaccination rates remain low.