COVID-19: Govt has not yet asked for advice on how to manage Auckland's border for Christmas - Bloomfield

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

Stricken Auckland remains sealed off from the rest of the nation with police-operated checkpoints stationed along its northern and southern border. People cannot travel in or out of the region unless it is for an essential purpose, such as for work or personal matters - which require an exemption.

The existence of the border has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as Christmas approaches, with many Aucklanders - who are now enduring their eleventh week of lockdown - desperate to see family and friends outside of the region. Others are simply hopeful to escape for the summer holidays. 

However, the Government has not yet given a clear answer as to whether Aucklanders will be able to leave the region for the festive season - or how the border might be managed if it remains in place over the summer. At this point, it's understood the prospect of interregional travel will rely on vaccine certificates and evidence of a negative test if the checkpoints are to continue operating. 

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told ZM the Government is working to establish a system at the border that will allow vaccinated Aucklanders to travel over the summer holidays. Ardern implied the border will likely remain in place, but suggested that those who are vaccinated and have evidence of a negative test will be able to leave the region. 

Later on Wednesday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told RNZ's Checkpoint the Government is considering introducing allocated time slots for Aucklanders to leave the region. The measure would reduce the likelihood of queues at the checkpoints while vaccine certificates are checked, he said.

But Dr Ashley Bloomfield told The AM Show on Thursday that public health officials have yet to give advice to the Government about Auckland's border - despite Christmas being about seven weeks away.

"We'd all like the boundary around Auckland not to be there at Christmas. The way to get there is to get those high vaccination rates across the motu," he said.

"If there is still a boundary at Christmas, there will obviously be a desire for Aucklanders to move out of Auckland and others to move in to see their whānau and friends. The question is how that can be done safely. No decisions have been taken on that and we will be giving advice."

He was quick to dismiss allocated time slots as a suggestion, reiterating that no decisions have been made in regards to managing the border over the Christmas period.

"I think there's a range of ways it could be done, " he said. "We haven't given advice on any options at the moment. I think [Hipkins] was floating some ideas."

The only advice the Ministry of Health has given is that all regions should focus on getting their double-dose vaccination rate up to 90 percent by Christmas, he said.

Visibly shocked, The AM Show host Ryan Bridge asked Bloomfield: "But still no advice on the border?"

"Christmas is still more than six weeks away, our aim is, of course, that there isn't a boundary in place at Christmas. If there is, [Health] will give advice, as will others - police and other departments, as to how that can be managed safely," Bloomfield said. 

"The fact that they haven't even asked you [for advice] yet, I think is going to shock a lot of people this morning. Christmas is six weeks away, that's not that long - have they at least asked you for a suitable date at which we could start leaving?" Bridge pressed.

"Not yet," Bloomfield replied. He said the decisions will depend on when all three of Auckland's District Health Boards (DHBs) have achieved 90 percent vaccination among their eligible populations, a target that will allow the region to shift away from the existing alert level system - and therefore lockdowns - and enter the first stage of the Government's new 'traffic light' system, the COVID-19 Protection Framework.

"The date that we do know is in place is once all those DHBs in Auckland get to 90 percent, and they're very close to that now," he said.

"Once they're fully vaccinated, 90 percent, then Auckland moves on to the new COVID Protection Framework."

Cabinet will convene in late November to assess the situation, he said. With the situation developing rapidly each week, the state of the outbreak will "be different by the end of November", which is when the issue of the border will be revisited. 

Last week, Labour Minister David Parker told The AM Show that no decisions had been made as to whether Aucklanders will be able to travel before other regions have also hit their 90 percent target. The COVID-19 Protection Framework won't come into effect nationwide until all DHBs achieve 90 percent vaccination, a goal current modelling estimates isn't likely until January. 

"It is true that those decisions have not yet been taken but they will need to be taken before Christmas. I am not saying what the answer will be. But by then [Auckland] will be into the traffic light system… and by then, there will be other parts of New Zealand that are at 90-plus and they will be in the traffic light system too," Parker said.

"Those decisions will be considered once we are into the traffic light system."