COVID-19: Chris Hipkins says he has no sympathy for gang members, defends border exemption for Mongrel Mob boss

The COVID-19 Response Minister is defending two gang members being given exemptions to travel into Auckland to help with the COVID-19 response. 

It comes after it was revealed the head of the Waikato Mongrel Mob chapter was given an essential workers exemption to enter Auckland last weekend. Sonny Fatupaito was granted the exemption to minimise the spread of COVID-19 in hard to reach communities such as gangs. 

At a press conference on Wednesday Chris Hipkins says he has no sympathy for the gangs but ultimately it's about doing what is needed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"One of the biggest things we have to do is ensure we get as much cooperation as possible. And we do whatever we have to to get that level of cooperation within reason. 

"But of course it poses a bigger challenge. Some of the people involved have been more active than what would be consistent with the alert levels in the areas they have been. So that does pose additional challenges for us but our focus here is a public health one, it's about contact tracing, it's about getting testing and vaccination happening."

Hipkins said while he didn't have exact figures a "large number" of gang members have been caught up in the current outbreak, making it even more important for them to cooperate. 

He also revealed as far as he knows only two gang members have been given exemptions to enter Auckland. 

"Ultimately our number one priority here is to stop COVID-19 in its tracks and that means doing what we need to do to get out in front of the virus with our contact tracing and with our testing. 

"Where we have been able to enlist gang members to help with that and where they have been willing we have done that. I have no time for the gangs, I don't have any sympathy for them but the number one priority here has to be to stop COVID-19."

Hipkins denied claims gang members were being given special treatment saying if another community was being impacted like gangs, it would be treated the same. 

"If there was another community, organisation or some other entity where we needed to get people in order to make sure we were reaching into the places we needed to then we would do that." 

Earlier Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also defended the exemption telling Radio Hauraki that  Fatupaito was helping with ongoing COVID-19 work. 

"We've got cases in gangs, and that makes this job really hard."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told Newshub officials are working with a "wide range of community leaders" to reinforce public health messaging around COVID.  

"It is important our response is adaptable to recognise the needs and context of people impacted by COVID-19. ARPHS and the Ministry continue to work with a wide range of community leaders to reach communities on a range of COVID-19 issues, including vaccination, testing and reinforcing public health messaging.

"There is a good level of engagement and cooperation between these providers and the communities they are working with."