Chris Hipkins rejects Government slow to open up Auckland, amid calls for border to drop

The COVID-19 Response Minister is pushing back on suggestions the Government has been slow to ease restrictions for Aucklanders.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon on Wednesday called for the hard border around Auckland to be dropped immediately after prior advice from Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield emerged suggesting there was no public health justification for it to remain once the traffic light system was imposed.

That system, also known as the COVID-19 Protection Framework, came into effect last Friday, raising questions about why the Government is waiting until December 15 to allow Aucklanders to leave the region.

Chris Hipkins, the minister in charge of the COVID-19 response, told The AM Show that under Dr Bloomfield's advice, the traffic light system wouldn't have come into effect until two weeks after all three Auckland DHBs hit 90 percent double jabbed, something that is yet to happen. That means the border would still be up if the advice had been followed to the tee.

"Counties Manukau, they're still chasing down their last people to make sure that they're getting to that 90 percent fully vaccinated rated," Hipkins said. "If we were waiting for that to happen, we'd be waiting 'til pretty much Christmas Eve at this point to be removing the boundary around Auckland and to be putting Auckland to the traffic light framework.

"We made the decision actually to move sooner than that, and to provide an absolute certain date around when the boundary would be removed around Auckland. So we've actually kind of moved quicker than what the public health advice was."

Hipkins has also said the nearly two-week period between the traffic light system coming into play and the border lifting allows more time for vaccination rates to increase and to bed-in the new settings. 

Aucklanders will still need to be fully vaccinated or have had a negative test to leave the region. There won't be a hard border, but spot checks instead.

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The minister told The AM show he understood Aucklanders had "done some pretty hard yards" for the rest of New Zealand.

"Ultimately, we made the decision to bring forward the movement to the traffic light framework to give them more freedom, to acknowledge that Aucklanders actually do deserve to be able to move around more freely.

"We made the decision to bring that forward in acknowledgement of that but keeping the boundary in place while we continue to chase down that 90 percent vaccination target around the rest of the country is actually really important. We will hit 90 percent of New Zealand adults fully vaccinated before the boundary around Aucklanders is removed."

Another part of Dr Bloomfield's advice had been to place all regions - bar Auckland and Northland - into orange. Instead, the Government has selected a handful of other districts, including Taupō and Rotorua Lakes, Gisborne and Whanganui, to remain at red for now. 

"Vaccination rates played a big role in that decision, but also the emerging nature of the outbreaks that we were seeing in that area," Hipkins said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Wednesday that it wasn't unusual for the Government to take a different view from the Ministry of Health. 

"I think what New Zealand has also been seeking from us is extra efforts to slow the spread of COVID, so we've balanced that and found a way that Aucklanders can move, but as safely as possible," she said.

"All the way through the pandemic, there have been occasions where we've taken a slightly different view. I think the spirit of what we've been working towards remains the same. We wanted Aucklanders to be able to move but we wanted it to be as safe as possible for the rest of the country."

Dr Bloomfield told the Health Select Committee on Wednesday about 10 percent of the ministry's advice isn't followed by Cabinet. He noted that ministry advice is "just one input into the Government's decision-making, and occasionally, Cabinet decides to do something different and they have sought advice from other parts of Government and indeed, from others outside of Government".