7 Sep 2022

Details revealed of investigation of women who sparked Northland Covid-19 lockdown

7:06 am on 7 September 2022
Northland, Auckland border

Signs for a checkpoint between Northland and Auckland last year, while strict travel restrictions were in place to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

Covid-infected women who triggered an 11-day lockdown in Northland were rejected entry by one government department then approved by another, police evidence shows.

The women were also kicked out of a Te Tai Tokerau hotel for "aggressive" behaviour, and trespassed. This led to the first tip-off to detectives, accusing the travellers of breaching Covid-19 rules.

Police called the "high-profile investigation" Operation Hiking.

Their final report has now been released under the Official Information Act, nearly a year after the October lockdown.

RNZ revealed earlier this year the women - who the Prime Minister described as "irresponsible," "dangerous" and "extraordinarily frustrating" - would not be charged due to insufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.

Police concluded there were in fact three women in the group that travelled to Te Tai Tokerau in October last year, not two, as first reported. A fourth person, a man, was approved to travel with the group but his presence could not be proved.

All three women later tested Covid-19 positive, but community transmission was not detected in Northland after their recorded trip, which was between 2 and 8 October, 2021.

Infometrics estimated the lockdown cost Northland's GDP $23 million.

Operation Hiking

At 1am on 29 September 2021, a woman applied for herself and three others to be allowed to travel into Northland, seeking travel for a construction business. This application was declined.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it was not essential work.

Two days after that application, at 2am, she made another application, under the social services category instead, citing the need for the four to travel in Northland, Auckland and Waikato, using what police later described as "identical circumstances".

The Ministry of Social Development reviewed applications on a "case-by-case basis" police said, and approved the application.

This was later revoked, when police queried the documents, by which time the women were already in Te Tai Tokerau.

Border checkpoint in the far north

A border checkpoint for Northland in November last year. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

One of the applications listed contacts the women intended to visit on their trip, but when police called these contacts, they had never heard of the women or the business, that police later concluded was indeed "bona fide".

In October 2021, a detective wrote a letter seeking information from Inland Revenue about the business cited in the successful travel documents application.

"I believe that the company name is being used to commit dishonest and fraudulent criminal activities," they said.

"Discrepancies relating to the existence of the business have been identified through investigation," and "police have reasonable grounds to believe that the company does not exist".

The detective alleged the company "had been used to dishonestly obtain business travel documents in order to travel between alert level boundaries and to facilitate further criminal offending".

But by the time the investigation was complete, police had evidence the business was however "bona fide".

Comments explaining why they did not prosecute were almost all redacted.

However police did say the women could not do social services work in Te Tai Tokerau, regardless of its legitimacy, because they "became ill with Covid soon after crossing the border".

Hotels, and texts about a tangi

The investigation "found no evidence to suggest that [member(s) of the group] had any connection to Harry Tam, the Mongrel Mob or were involved in prostitution".

Those were all allegations made at the time, on television, by former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Peters had since issued a correction and apologised.

Police did, however, find texts on a phone possessed by one of the women, discussing a gang member's tangi while they were in Northland.

One detective wrote in an email at the time: "It is quite possible that at least [member of travelling group] attended the burial at cemetery which is consistent."

Police then searched videos on Facebook of the tangi but concluded: "Despite extensive enquiries we have been unable to establish any of the women had attended a gang funeral in Paihia which would be in breach of the conditions of the BTDs [business travel documents]."

The police Eagle helicopter.

The police Eagle helicopter was used to search for the women, and at least 75 police staff were involved in the investigation or trying to locate the women, documents showed. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

At least two of the women were also kicked out of a hotel during the trip and trespassed from it, and people from the hotel reported suspicions to the 105 online reporting service, alleging that the women had breached Covid restriction rules by coming from Auckland, before Operation Hiking began.

The person from the hotel said they kicked the women out on their second night staying, and they "seemed edgy and like they had something to hide".

They said the women were "acting strange" and made their writing "unreadable".

"I asked them to leave the hotel before their stay ended as they were being aggressive and problematic.

"They behaved weirdly and suspicious," the person said.

They said the women accused staff of going into their room to clean, despite the Do Not Disturb sign.

After the dispute the owner called police, asked the women to leave, and trespassed them.

Later the person from the hotel found a receipt in the women's rubbish bin from Auckland, and contacted 105.

"I am suspicious that they have breached Auckland's Level 3 rules," they wrote.

Police later said fake details had been used to book the stay.

PPE, helicopters, and early exits from MIQ

Authorities considered naming at least one of the women to get them to come forward, with a warrant for arrest.

But emails show this risked a woman "going to ground further".

At least one woman was in text communications with Auckland health teams, admitting they had travelled to Northland, but refusing to complete a Covid-19 test initially, and refusing to give away their whereabouts.

One of the group spoke to police on the phone and "communicated in a manner that was quite confrontational including advising she knew people in the police and had them on another line" when she was first called about the travel.

The call became so confrontational the constable said they had to end it.

Border checkpoint in the far north

A border checkpoint in the Far North Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

When police did interview the group, officers described one woman as dismissive and not forthcoming with answers, and another as "vague".

They described the lengths they went to to arrest one woman - engaging both the Eagle and Delta helicopters. Police were dressed in goggles, masks, gloves and overalls.

They set up cordons and had a custody van.

Twelve officers attended, including three detectives.

A detective at the scene said the woman was "sweating at the face and forehead (though she was wearing a jumper and trackpants), sniffing and wiping her nose at times" but agreed to get into the van.

She denied going to Northland.

"I did not find her credible," the officer said.

The woman was taken to MIQ.

When police visited another person of interest's home, they weren't there, but the person called police telling the officer "not to harass her family" and was "angry".

When the women were released from MIQ, police asked for advanced notice so they could pick up and interview the women immediately upon their departure, but the investigation report said: "Despite multiple established contacts they [the travelling women] were all released days earlier than advised."

When police enquired, and discovered the women had already been released, they had to relocate them a second time for interviews.

At least one woman acknowledged giving incorrect information to police, saying, a month later, "she had lied in her first statement and confirmed she had been to Northland with the intention of working, however became sick after travelling".

Staffing and intelligence

RNZ counted 75 police staff named as involved in Operation Hiking in the documents, including more than 20 detectives.

Police used CCTV, bank records, phone data, records of calls and texts for their investigation, ordering Spark, 2degrees and Facebook to hand over information.

This phone intelligence allowed police to shade in areas of maps, suggesting the women's possible whereabouts.

Police built profiles and intelligence summaries of the women, and published locations of interest including petrol stations, hotels, shops and a campsite.

One of the women agreed to be interviewed by RNZ, but then retracted before doing a recording.

Police did not respond to RNZ's requests for an interview and comment yesterday.

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