Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki says he was well within his rights to leave Auckland on Saturday night following the official announcement the city would enter level 3 lockdown at 6am the following morning.
Tamaki and his wife Hannah went to Rotorua late on Saturday night and told a church service on Sunday morning they had done so in order to avoid having to stay at home all week.
At least 9000 other people also left Auckland early, despite the Prime Minister on Saturday asking Aucklanders to start following level 3 restrictions immediately, for safety.
Tamaki told Checkpoint that legally he did nothing wrong. He planned to take legal action against media which he said "vilified and publicly defamed" him and his wife.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Tamakis' actions were irresponsible.
"He's wrong," Tamaki said. "I've done nothing irresponsible and I haven't flouted the rules. And I'm not escaping.
"I was within my rights and never broke any rules at all. And we've kept everything that was required by the health department, contrary to what the media say, the gatherings have been well within the rules."
In response to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's advice that people follow alert level 3 rules immediately, Tamaki said that was not the law.
"I'm in the people-changing business and I move around the country often... So why was I singled out when I never broke the rules?"
Hannah Tamaki had referred to their leaving the city as an "escape", but Brian told Checkpoint it was not an escape.
"We were quite entitled, like 9000-plus other vehicles, leaving before midnight, that was all right."
Auckland was moved into alert level 3 restrictions officially at 6am on Sunday, 27 February, after 15 community cases of Covid-19 were found in South Auckland. The most recent cases had visited multiple locations while symptomatic, potentially exposing hundreds to the virus.
Tamaki's Destiny Church is also based in South Auckland.
He said not only has he followed the law but also ethical and moral obligations, despite leaving the area with the highest potential exposure to Covid-19, and after the prime minister asked Aucklanders to follow level 3 rules from her Saturday evening announcement.
Tamaki said the next city he and Hannah are heading for is Invercargill. The city's mayor Tim Shadbolt said on Thursday afternoon that the couple were not welcome.