Former MP Hone Harawira says he is fearful for the people of Northland as the region, which is battling to boost its flagging vaccination rates, braces for an influx of visitors over the summer - some of whom are likely to be carrying COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Auckland's regional boundary will open from December 15, allowing Aucklanders to travel for the first time in almost four months. As the epicentre of the ongoing outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant, Auckland entered lockdown on August 18 and continues to remain under stringent restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.
To help prevent the virus from finding footholds elsewhere in New Zealand, a strict boundary, manned by police-operated checkpoints, was also introduced to ringfence the region. Travel in and out of Auckland is highly restricted - people are currently prohibited from leaving or entering without an exemption that proves their movement is for an essential purpose.
But this week, Ardern announced that Aucklanders will once again be free to travel from mid-December, allowing people to reunite with their loved ones in time for Christmas. Travellers must either be fully vaccinated or return a negative result within 72 hours prior to departure. Although police will not be vetting every vehicle that crosses the border, "spot checks" will be undertaken, Ardern said, with $1000 infringement fines issued to those who flout the rules.
However, Harawira says that is not good enough. Following the Government's announcement on Wednesday, the former Te Tai Tokerau MP said he was bracing for a "summer of hell" in Northland as the region battles to boost vaccination uptake. He believes the decision to open Auckland's boundary will have "devastating consequences" for the people of Te Tai Tokerau, which at the time of writing, is only 72 percent fully vaccinated. Of the region's eligible population, 83 percent have had their first dose of the vaccine.
Harawira, the chief executive of the iwi-led checkpoint group Tai Tokerau Border Control, is now calling for tighter restrictions at Northland's regional border as neighbouring Aucklanders plan their summer getaways. Speaking to The AM Show on Thursday morning, Harawira said a strict boundary between Northland and Auckland should remain in place while the former works on vaccinating its most vulnerable. Only those who are fully vaccinated should be allowed through, he said.
"I don't have a problem with what the Government is proposing - except allowing open-door travel into Te Tai Tokerau. I think we still need to keep a hard border, and ensure that the only people who can come in have been fully vaccinated," he told The AM Show.
Harawira believes spot-checking at the border is a "pointless" proposal, noting for every vehicle that is vetted, possibly hundreds of others are passing through - possibly with unvaccinated, or even infected, passengers.
"My understanding is that the hard border is going to be lifted, it's going to be [monitored] with spot checks only - and that's a recipe for disaster. I've seen spot checks, I've participated in spot checks - you're going to let a 1000 people go past and then stop two. Or you could let 20 people go post and stop two, and you could get those two wrong. Spot-checks are pointless. They only work if you've got hard borders," he said.
He says the consequences could be devastating if more precautions aren't taken to protect the people of Te Tai Tokerau.
"It's scary. I don't even really want to contemplate what could happen if we don't manage this right. My job as part of Te Tai Tokerau Border Control and working with iwi up here, is to do everything we can to raise the vaccination rates and limit the amount of travel into our territory until we get over  percent. Right now, we're not targeted to hit the 90 until January 15."
Harawira is also supporting the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency's call for the Ministry of Health to release individual-level data regarding unvaccinated Māori in an ongoing legal stoush. The agency has taken the ministry to court for refusing to release the details of those who have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19. It has asked the ministry to provide the contact details of all unvaccinated Māori in the North Island, allowing the provider to specifically target those individuals in a bid to boost uptake among Māori, who have the lowest rates of vaccination by ethnicity.
As of November 14, only 57 percent of eligible Māori in Northland are fully vaccinated - 61 percent of eligible Māori are fully vaccinated nationwide. Comparatively, 73 percent have received both doses in Auckland.
Harawira says Māori healthcare providers need to take a targeted approach - but to do that, they require the critical data to identify where the unvaccinated are.
"If I've got a 1000 people in my community, but there's only 20 that are unvaccinated, do I really need to be doing a [scattered] approach and chase all 1000? Or do I just focus on the 20? That's the information the Ministry of Health has refused to provide to us for months. If we had that, we'd be a lot higher than we are now," Harawira said.
"So that's the first thing: release that data immediately. The second thing is, allow us, if necessary, to put up a hard border to ensure that the only people who can come in, are those who are allowed to come in. If they're not allowed, turn them around and send them back to Auckland… right now, our priority must be those who are most vulnerable in our community."
Harawira says when the vaccination rates have reached a sufficient level, Northland community leaders will be more than happy to welcome Aucklanders, and other New Zealanders, into their home, but to do that, they need time - and until that point, they need precautions.
"The Government needs to understand that for Northland, to participate positively in the exercise of opening up the nation, we need to take extra precautions in terms of maintaining a hard border and [the Ministry of Health] providing that data immediately so we can identify where the unvaccinated people are and target them… I'm very worried," he said.
"It's a case of accepting that for a better future for everybody, we [need] to hold on a little bit longer… if we can make give it extra time to get past the 90, to lift our vaccination rates - let's move Christmas to January 25 and we'll have our Christmas then… and we'll probably be welcoming everyone."
In her announcement on Wednesday, Ardern said police will be working with local iwi to decide the best way to manage the gateway to Northland.
"On the northern boundary, and the gateway to Northland, Police will work with Iwi to ensure people can move, but also that the people of Northland have confidence in the checks that are in place," Ardern said.
During the press conference, she added that officials are "particularly mindful" of the region's lower vaccination rates, indicating spot-checks will be performed more regularly at Northland's border.