Jacinda Ardern, Kelvin Davis deny COVID-19 border reopening decision was made without Māori consultation

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Māori-Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis are denying claims the border reopening decision was made without Māori consultation. 

The Government announced on Thursday that mandatory state-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) will be phased out for international arrivals from March, with travellers expected to self-isolate for seven to 10 days instead. 

In a statement released shortly after, Dr Donna Cormack from Te Rōpu Whakakaupapa Urutā - the National Māori Pandemic Group - said the plan was made without consultation with Māori, or consideration for their wellbeing.

"We understand the importance of people being able to return home, and families being able to reconnect," the health researcher and lecturer said. 

"But we are concerned that in spite of repeated calls from Māori and the strong, clear messages from the Waitangi Tribunal to the Government at the end of last year, this announcement fails to consider the disparate impacts and risks for Māori communities." 

She said due to the "racist, inequitable rollout of the vaccination programme", Māori have had later access to the COVID-19 vaccine and are not as protected as other population groups as a result.

"In addition, there are already inequities in the rollout of the paediatric vaccination, meaning that tamariki Māori are much less protected than Pākehā children - currently vaccination rates for Māori tamariki are about half those for the total population.

"It is frustrating and really worrying that the Government is prepared again to move ahead with plans that carry more risk for Māori than for other groups."

Dr Donna Cormack.
Dr Donna Cormack. Photo credit: The Whakatika Research Project

Ardern, speaking in Auckland CBD on Friday at the new Cloud pop-up vaccination centre, said Māori had been consulted. 

"Throughout the pandemic we've worked really closely with Māori on our response," she told reporters. 

"There's been areas, particularly things like care in our community, where we ensured that we are able to look after people - increasingly as it becomes a mild-to-moderate illness - in their homes. 

"We've also been working closely on our vaccination rollout. Everything we're learning and developing along the way we're using to improve and ensure that every stage is better than the last. 

"We know that there's always more we could be doing but I'm confident that what we've done here in New Zealand has protected all our people, including Māori. 

"On the reopening dates, we've been very deliberate in choosing to reopen at the time we have, to enable as many people as possible to be eligible for their booster. In fact, 92 percent by the time we reopen will be eligible for that booster and I encourage everyone to go out and take up that opportunity."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland CBD at the new Cloud pop-up vaccination centre.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland CBD at the new Cloud pop-up vaccination centre. Photo credit: Newshub

Davis also pushed back against the accusations.

"I disagree entirely with that," he told reporters. 

"We've been engaging with Māori since March 2020. In fact, earlier this week we met with the pandemic response group. We gave them a heads up about the Prime Minister's announcement that she made yesterday. They were fairly relaxed about that and appreciated the conversations that we have been having. 

"I just really dispute the calls from some groups in Māoridom that there hasn't been consultation, because even this week we've met with the Iwi chairs three times. During the height of Delta last year, I was meeting with three different groups each week. 

"There's been a lot of conversations and we've taken on board a lot of the ideas that we've come up with."

The disagreement comes just days before virtual Waitangi commemorations. The usual packed gathering at Te Whare Rūnanga on the Upper Grounds of Waitangi has been called off this year to avoid an Omicron outbreak. 

"That doesn't stop us around the country being able to take stock on the day, to reflect - as I've done today - with our National Iwi Chairs Forum on the progress that we're making and the work that's yet to be done," Ardern said. 

"There's always more work to be done but in my view that will be the case with a document, that is a living document, where we're constantly striving to be better partners as a government."

Māori-Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis.
Māori-Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis. Photo credit: Newshub

It's not the first time the Government has been accused of leaving Māori behind during the pandemic. The Waitangi Tribunal released a scathing ruling of the Government's response in December last year, saying Māori were put at risk, particularly due to the initial blanket approach to the vaccine rollout. 

The Government, after calls for change, opted for a whānau-centred approach to the vaccine rollout for Māori and is contributing millions of dollars to providers

The Ministry of Health lost a High Court battle in November against the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency over its repeated requests for data on all eligible Māori in the North Island who had not been vaccinated. 

The Ministry of Health has since provided information on unvaccinated Māori aged 12 and up. The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency is now planning further legal action to get data on tamariki Māori who are eligible for the vaccine

The latest data shows 90 percent of Māori have had at least one dose. 

An additional 100,000 Māori will be eligible to get their booster vaccine now the interval between the second dose and the booster has been shortened from four months to three. 

So far, 116,557 Māori have had their booster.