National's Christopher Luxon wants the Government to open the Auckland border on Wednesday night after it emerged public health advice from November suggested boundary restrictions should have been lifted when the country moved into the traffic light system.
NZ Herald on Wednesday morning revealed previously unreleased public health advice which suggested the hard border around Auckland should be removed when Auckland and the rest of the country shifted into the COVID Protection Framework (traffic light system). The country made the move to the framework on December 3, but the border won't reopen until December 15.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield explained the advice in an affidavit to the Waitangi Tribunal looking into the COVID-19 response. The advice was part of a ministry paper on November 24, two days after the Prime Minister announced the traffic light system would start on December 3.
Dr Bloomfield is quoted by NZ Herald as saying the border could be lifted as "there will be no public health justification to maintain a boundary around Auckland under the CPF".
He believed the new system with increasing vaccination rates would minimise the chance of serious illness and death in and out of Auckland. Keeping the boundary up would also take testing capacity away from other tasks, such as quick turnarounds for close contacts, the NZ Herald reports Dr Bloomfield as saying.
Reacting to that advice, Luxon told The AM Show on Wednesday that it was "unusual" the Prime Minister "hasn't listened to Ashley Bloomfield".
"If the public health advice is that frankly Auckland doesn't need a border, because we've got very high vaccination rates, I can tell you now Aucklanders, having been an Auckland-based MP, having been in lockdown, having seen people up close and personal around their businesses, their mental health, I think that border should be released."
He encouraged the Prime Minister to lift the border on Wednesday night.
"If the public health advice is saying that the border is not needed, we've got Ashley Bloomfield telling us we've got very high levels of vaccination, we're well over 90 percent, what's the justification for it?"
According to NZ Herald, advice initially suggested that some regions could start in green. That was adjusted, however, due to concerns about low vaccination rates, particularly for Māori, and cases outside of Auckland.
"The final recommendation was that regions should be placed at orange, except for Northland and Auckland metro DHBs, which should enter at red. This adjustment was based on a precautionary approach and should be viewed as an interim measure for the coming weeks."
In the end, the Government moved to have a number of regions at red, including Taupō and Rotorua Lakes, Gisborne and Whanganui.
The Government says its decisions were based on a "cautious" approach.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told NZ Herald that the choice not to relax the boundary when the traffic light system came into play "was to give regions a bit more time to get their vaccination rates up, and to allow the Government a two-week period to review the framework settings".
In the House on Tuesday, ACT's David Seymour questioned the Prime Minister on why Auckland was at red, when the the COVID Protection Framework suggests red is necessary when "action [is] needed to protect [the] health system" as it is facing an "unsustainable number of hospitalisations", something not happening currently.
Jacinda Ardern said the Government wanted to be careful in the early stages of the new framework, noting overseas observations of "if you move too fast, you run the risk of those cases getting out of control, and no one wants that".
"I don't think, as we transition into an entirely different way of doing things, that New Zealanders have an issue with us being cautious as we do that, because they want caution so that we maintain low case rates," Ardern replied.
She said the Government wanted to "act carefully because we have an outbreak we need to maintain control over and we need to assess the impact of the outbreak".
In response to a question from Luxon about what the point of the criteria is if it's not being followed, Ardern said it would be used to inform decisions.
"But when from the very beginning we said for that first set of decisions as we transition we would act carefully because we have an outbreak we need to maintain control over and we need to assess the impact of the outbreak."
Luxon told The AM Show on Wednesday he was unsure what the Prime Minister was using to make decisions around the traffic light system when its own criteria is not currently being followed.
"How is the Prime Minister making these decisions? There is published criteria about what makes red, orange, green, and then fundamentally it's not being followed, and then you hear about advice from Ashley Bloomfield saying, actually Auckland is good to go given the vaccination rates and there is not a public health need for the border".
The Government's caution can also be seen in its decision not to move most of the country to alert level 1 in September as Dr Bloomfield advised.