15 Nov 2021

Regional mayors reluctant to take position on reopening borders

From Checkpoint, 6:15 pm on 15 November 2021

Whangārei's mayor Sheryl Mai has conceded Tai Tokerau will not make the 90 percent double vaccine target by the time the government makes its decision on moving to the new Covid-19 Protection Framework. 

But Mai would not say if the border between Auckland and her region should open regardless of whether Northland falls short on vaccinations. 

On Wednesday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will reveal when the gates to the supercity will open. 

But the government has not ruled out restricting travel to areas with low vaccination rates, and plans to review the nationwide situation on 29 November. 

Northland is in alert level 2. Its first dose rate is 82 percent, with only 72 percent fully vaccinated. 

Mai told Checkpoint the region will likely still be struggling to get its vaccination rates up through to mid-December, and the council was in talks with government officials.

She said it was important to protect the health of residents and people from outside the region, as well as the economy.

"Our economy is really reliant on people coming to our region. So with safe passage, with double-vaxxed people we really would be welcoming people to come north," she said.

"Many people will be wanting to come visit their baches and holiday in our glorious region - we love those people, but we definitely don't want them bringing Covid with them."

She said there was no clear indication if the borders could remain closed when the rest of the country reopened. But officials are planning where checkpoints could be positioned and the council had contributed advice.  

"Those decisions will be made in the future... based on the relevant information at the time. What we need to do is get our vaccination up to that 90 percent, and we're a long way off that.

"We still may need checkpoints... in an ideal world we wouldn't need it, but if we do and that's the decision that's made, then we will absolutely support that.

"So it could be that we're operating in an alert level, as opposed to the red and the green, or we may be we may be at red and they may be at amber." 

Mai said Covid-19 spreading in the community was a scary thought.

"I think the risk is that... our health system may not be able to cope, and that's not -with the state of our hospital - something that we really want to even consider."

But, she would not commit on if the borders should stay closed.

"There'll be a lot of people who would be really, really upset about that, because their livelihoods rely on people visiting," she said.

"It's really important to us. We've all got friends and family who we want to visit in Auckland and they want to come up here, and we want to make that happen."

Mai said the right decision lay with the government and it was critical to the wellbeing of the region. She would support the government's decision either way.

"The most important thing is that we get to that 90 percent double vaxxed ... that's our passport to the to the options." 

Gisborne mayor Rehette Stoltz said her region was not expected to reach the double vaccination target until 12 December, but also would not state an opinion about whether the region's borders should stay closed.  

Single doses there are at 83 percent, and double doses are at 70 percent.

"We only have one focus here. We need to get our community vaccinated and get them to the 90 percent," Stoltz told Checkpoint.

"We are now pulling out all stops and taking the vaccine to our people.

"The ball is in our court, so what we're saying to our Tairāwhiti residents is, 'come on, it's our time to shine so we can play with the rest of Aotearoa'."

Stoltz said the only discussions with government are with health leaders about reaching the 90 percent vaccination target. Not about the challenges of having travellers from around the country visit over summer. 

Tourism was an important earner for the region, she said.

"Millions of dollars come just out of Auckland... so it is a big expense, it is good for our economy if everyone can come here ...  we want to have people here, but ultimately we need to make sure our economy is ready to receive everyone."

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Checkpoint the government wanted to let people know when Aucklanders can travel as soon as possible. 

"The government is set to make an announcement regarding Christmas travel for Aucklanders this Wednesday.

"We want to also give people certainty about the way that that will work… we want to make this as simple as possible, but also to keep people as safe as we possibly can, as vaccination rates rise right around the country."

Robertson pointed to Air New Zealand's travel policy] as a good example of a way to manage safety, but said the government was focused on assuring safety for regions near Auckland. 

"We do want to be able to maximise people's travel."