Northland border blunder: Apology from officials, but not from Chris Hipkins

Details have emerged of the mistake which led to the $23 million 11-day lockdown in Northland last year.

Officials have told Newshub they're sorry for the blunder, but the COVID-19 Response Minister at the time, Chris Hipkins, is refusing to apologise and said he would make the same decision again.

October 8, 2021: it was the day Northland locked down. Via a trio of travelling women, a positive Delta case leaked out of Auckland by supposedly using a forged travel exemption.

"A person obtained a document by providing false information," Hipkins said at the time.

But that statement from Hipkins was - in fact - false.

Internal emails show that on October 1 a travel exemption to go to Northland is granted under the social services category. 

On October 4, at 9pm, police asked Government officials whether there was an exemption granted. At 1:26pm the next day, a Ministry of Social Development staffer confirmed "it should have been declined" and so will be revoked.

"Sorry, my mistake," they tell their colleagues.

But the damage was done, a positive case got out and Northland was locked down.

"It's the invisible, arrogant Wellington bureaucrats that are frustrating the heck out of all of us up here," said Far North Mayor John Carter.

The Prime Minister is steering well clear of this one, passing questions over to Hipkins on Wednesday morning. 

"Our first and foremost priority at that time was to protect the people of Northland as much as we could," he said.

It wasn't just Northland that suffered - the women were pilloried by the public.

Ministers were told about the multi-million dollar blunder on October 13, with Hipkins telling RNZ at the time: "There was a degree of error in the approval in the first place."

Carter said the Government should have "come out and made a significant statement instead of saying 'It looks like there's been an error'".

ACT leader David Seymour told Newshub the Government wasn't "prepared to say it's not these women's fault".

"It was the Government's fault because it would have called into question the lockdown of Northland," said Seymour.

There was no apology from the minister on Wednesday.

"Ultimately, the decision that we took is not one that we would change now," Hipkins said. "It was to do with protecting Northland in an environment where vaccination rates were low and where we knew COVID-19 and Delta, in particular, was making its way up there."

Ultimately though, the Northland border blunder didn't result in a single community case.