'Peculiar': Judith Collins questions why Auckland hasn't got localised lockdowns after alert level border splits Northland in two

Judith Collins has labelled the overnight restrictions slapped on the tip of the North Island "peculiar", considering the Government's previous reluctance to enact localised lockdowns. 

The northern part of Te Tai Tokerau went into level 3 at midnight after the detection of an "unlinked case" of COVID-19. The case was picked up in Taipa, about 20km northeast of Kaitaia in Northland, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Tuesday evening. 

Aside from temporary "bespoke level 4" in a small part of the Waikato bordering outbreak epicentre Auckland in September, it's the first time a smaller part of a region has been carved out for a localised lockdown. 

"These two cases are based in Taipa in the Far North, so are geographically quite separate from the other Northland cases, which are centred around Kaipara, Kaikohi and have locations of interest in Whangarei, Kaiwaka and Wellsford," Hipkins said.

"The two new cases have not been near any of those locations, nor come into contact with any of the cases in the Northland outbreak, so it's unclear at this point how they could have possibly picked up the virus."

The new border runs from Hokianga Harbour in the west to Kaeo River Bridge in the east, slicing the Northland region in two.

Collins told The AM Show it was an "unusual" move, but backed it - suggesting parts of Auckland unaffected by the outbreak shouldn't be included in the city's level 3 area. 

"It is peculiar, but it is something that very early on with COVID I remember well speaking about the fact we could do localised lockdowns if we had contact tracing and we used borders properly, but that was completely dismissed by the Government as 'ridiculous'. 

"Now strangely enough we've got a very localised lockdown in parts of Northland, but a whole lot of Auckland for instance - many parts where there is no COVID and hasn't been at all - don't have that privilege." 

Hyper-local restrictions - also known as 'postcode' lockdowns - were tried during Melbourne's big outbreak last year. They failed completely. Collins' deputy Shane Reti told the NZ Herald in September that's because they moved "two weeks late at least" and the borders made little sense, some "cutting through parks". 

"It's about finessing and getting a more sophisticated type of lockdown," he said at the time. 

"It is an unusual thing for them to do," Collins said on Wednesday, "but it is something that we've said if they used technology, they'd be able to do that, in the past. They've said no. In fact, I was absolutely ridiculed for suggesting that there could be localised lockdowns." 

Judith Collins.
Judith Collins. Photo credit: The AM Show

The Far North lockdown isn't quite as finessed as a single postcode - it covers at least a dozen. But by placing the border between Hokianga and Kaeo, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern avoided being caught in a level 3 area. She was in Kawakawa on Tuesday, less than an hour's drive south of the new border. 

Later that evening, Parliament's Speaker Trevor Mallard loosened the rules for MPs who want to leave level 3 areas and return to Parliament anyway. Previously, five days' self-isolation was required before they could enter the House - now they just have to return a negative test. 

Ardern said the change would allow her to visit Auckland for the first time since the outbreak began. Her absence from the city has been criticised by Opposition MPs.

Collins questioned why the changes were made now. 

"The timing is curious and it's not like there's less COVID in Auckland now than there was three months ago. There's actually more COVID in Auckland than there was three months ago." 

She dismissed a suggestion that making it easier for National MPs based in Auckland and Waikato to come to Wellington would also make it easier to roll her. Collins' leadership has seen the party's poll ratings tank, with her own popularity lower than that of ACT leader David Seymour.

"No, not at all. I know that Tova seems to be somewhat obsessed with me, but I understand she's got a new job now and I wish her well," Collins said, referring to Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien, who is departing in January.