COVID-19: Government not ruling out state-allocated times to leave Auckland over summer despite backlash

The Government isn't ruling out allocated times for Aucklanders to leave the city over the Christmas period - a controversial idea floated by COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. 

"We are committed to ensuring Aucklanders are able to leave Auckland for Christmas and the summer holidays," Hipkins said in a statement on Thursday afternoon. 

"At the same time, we need to do what we can for the rest of the country to try and ensure it is people, and not the virus, that moves beyond the Auckland boundary.

"No system will be perfect, and it will be challenging, but we are looking at how we can use tools like vaccine certificates and testing to achieve these goals.

"While no decisions have been made, we are talking with different sectors and groups who will be key to making a land boundary work safely and as smoothly as possible, and will keep the public up to speed with developments."

Hipkins told RNZ's Checkpoint on Wednesday the Government was considering giving Aucklanders an allocated time to leave the region over the summer holiday, to help reduce traffic at checkpoints, as vaccination certificates are checked. 

"It might be that people get allocated a time in which they can travel," Hipkins said. "We haven't made that decision yet. It's an option. We're just working through what the practical options are to ensure that we don't end up with people spending days sitting in their cars."

Earlier on that day, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government was setting up a border control system that would allow vaccinated Aucklanders to leave the region for Christmas and summer. 

Hipkins' idea faced swift backlash, with some National MPs posting sarcastic scenarios of how the policy would play out, with it potentially causing huge traffic jams. 

"Aucklanders queuing to show their allocated holiday leave pass, negative test and vaccine certificate," National MP Nicola Willis captioned an image showing hoards of traffic backed up at a border crossing. 

National MP Simeon Brown wrote on Twitter: "Dear Prime Minister. May I have permission to leave Auckland on Christmas Eve at 3:45pm. Returning on January 3 at 12:30pm. I hope we don't have to enter a MIQ-style lottery to get that slot. Regards, Aucklanders."

National leader Judith Collins urged the Government to rule out the idea. 

"It seems everyone except the Government can see that this idea is unworkable and ridiculous. People in Auckland who have put up with three months of lockdown need certainty and a plan," she said. 

"What they don't need is Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins going on the radio threatening them with another Government-run lottery to be allowed to travel over summer.

"The Government seems to be trying to make up for its negligent lack of planning over the last 18 months by publically workshopping new ideas on the fly.

"It has to stop."

ACT leader David Seymour said the Government was "either making it up as they go or completely detached from reality" with the suggestion of Aucklanders needing to book a slot to get through checkpoints.

"The suggestion only underlines how incompatible internal borders are with life returning to normal. It completely undermines the promise of summer festivals for youth who get vaccinated," he said. 

"It undermines the promise that interregional travel will be possible once the traffic light system is in place. Worst of all is the uncertainty being created by the Government, with one random suggestion after another leading to increasing anxiety in the community."

There were signs the idea wasn't popular with Hipkins' colleagues. 

"I don't think it's particularly likely that there would be the kind of scheme where you were allocated a day," Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told First Up. "I can't see that - it wouldn't be very practical. But we do have to find a way through in the event that we still have a boundary there."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told The AM Show the Government had not yet asked the Ministry of Health for advice on how to manage Auckland's regional boundary over the Christmas period.

On the day Ardern announced the Government's new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system, to replace the alert levels, she assured Aucklanders they'd be able to see family and friends across New Zealand for Christmas

She denies it would be inconsistent to allow vaccinated Aucklanders to travel the country but still force overseas arrivals to quarantine

The new traffic light framework comes into force once 90 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated across each District Health Board. But since Auckland has been in lockdown for months and is close to reaching the target with 82 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated, it could enter the traffic light framework sooner.

Once the traffic light framework comes into force, what freedoms people have will be determined by vaccine certificates. For example, when Auckland enters the 'red' light, hospitality venues can open with up to 100 fully vaccinated people, but businesses that choose not to use vaccine certificates must remain contactless. 

It's unclear if regions that reach 90 percent will be held back from entering the traffic light system by other regions that haven't reached it yet.