COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins pushes back on penalties for coronavirus rule-breakers

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is pushing back on calls to punish the ruling-breaking families behind the latest outbreak, saying the Government needs people to cooperate. 

Auckland was thrust back into alert level 3 on Sunday after revelations a 21-year-old with COVID-19 ignored self-isolation rules and visited several populated places, including a gym while he was symptomatic. His mum has also tested positive. 

The 21-year-old's infection has been traced to the original cluster at Papatoetoe High School. But the big question is how far the young man has spread the virus in Auckland - and only time will tell as test results flow in over the coming days.

The other big question was how the young man and his mum caught the virus. The 21-year-old is an older sibling of a Papatoetoe High School student, who returned three recent negative tests and is asymptomatic. So how did they catch the virus?  

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed on Monday it was yet another case of rule-breaking - two families getting together during Auckland's last alert level 3 lockdown. 

"We knew from the genome sequencing that our most recent two cases in the same household were linked to a prior household that were already in quarantine. We've been working to identify what happened there," Ardern told The AM Show. 

"We've now been able to confirm the contact that caused these cases: family members from both households had contact during level 3, and so that's essentially what has occurred."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show

Last week Ardern reminded New Zealanders about "repercussions" after a member of a family now in quarantine - who tested positive - defied self-isolation rules and went to work at KFC. 

Ardern said the Government can clamp down on those who defy the rules, thanks to special powers written in section 70 of the Health Act.

National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop wants people who break COVID-19 rules fined because the Government's "high trust" model isn't working. 

"It's time to start knocking on people's doors and making sure that when people are meant to be isolating for two weeks, they actually are doing so," Bishop told RNZ. 

"And if they're not, let's appropriately punish them and make sure people know about that so other people don't do it as well."

But Hipkins fears it could lead to more dishonesty.  

"We just need people to cooperate. If for example you start taking a more punitive approach, people would be more reluctant to share the personal information they have to share for the contact tracing process, and that'll just slow us down," he told More FM. 

"The key thing here is we've got to be able to move with speed; the faster people come forward, the faster they get tested, the faster they share all their information, the quicker our response is going to be.

"In a criminal proceeding, that's not always the case. People withhold information that's not in their best interest and we don't want people to be in that space when we're talking about contact tracing processes."

Hipkins said it's been difficult for teenagers at Papatoetoe High School to disclose their whereabouts to officials. 

"It's pretty personal. You get a lot of information about people, everyone they've been in contact with. We've been dealing with teenagers here - some of their contacts are ones they didn't want to necessarily disclose to their parents," he said. 

"You've got to allow for human nature here."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Ardern told The AM Show she's "angry" about the rule-breaking but of "two-minds" about whether punishment is the right course of action. 

"Do I want people to understand consequences? Yes. But I am constantly in two minds. For me, my job is two-fold - firstly, to protect people from dying; secondly, to make sure that people follow the rules," she said. 

"Are people more likely to follow the rules if they have a fine slapped on them or are they more likely to follow the rules if they feel it's going to be safe for them when they've done something dumb or wrong?"

She said the decision to lay charges sits with police. 

"We can get to the other side when people do dumb things. But we are not going to get through this if every time someone does something dumb we pillory them to the point where people are fearful and don't tell us the truth because the truth is gold for us."

The latest seven-day alert level 3 lockdown for Auckland comes less than a week after the Government shifted Auckland to alert level 2 following a three-day lockdown. 

Hipkins says the Government wanted to take a more "individualised" approach to tackling the outbreak through testing and contact tracing, but it would only work if people told the truth about where they had been. 

"The reality is we did come out of lockdown on the basis that people would be doing the right thing and we'd be taking a more individualised approach," he said. 

"It's clear that system wasn't able to cope with people not doing the right thing and not sharing the information we needed them to share, and so we've had to do something a bit more drastic."