7 Oct 2021

Government defends gang leader border exemptions

9:34 am on 7 October 2021

The government has defended exemptions for gang leader to cross the Auckland boundary, while confirming a large number of gang members have been infected.

Covid-19 Response minister Chris Hipkins

Photo: Pool / Stuff / Robert Kitchin

At least three gangs are believed to have been affected by the Delta outbreak that has spread from Auckland to Waikato.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, speaking at yesterday's daily Covid-19 briefing, would not say how many total gang members were involved in the latest outbreak but agreed there were quite a large number.

"I don't have a number. Quite a number, but I don't have a precise number."

Opposition parties were quick to criticise after news broke that Mongrel Mob leader Sonny Fatupaito was granted an essential worker exemption by the government to cross the regional Auckland boundary to help get members and their whānau tested.

In a statement, Fatupaito said work to communicate with hard-to-reach communities had started with the Assemblies of God church cluster in Manukau, "which then extended to a Mongrel Mob Kingdom Chapter based in Auckland. This required immediate intervention from the senior leadership in the Waikato Kingdom".

"The Kingdom has collaborated closely with providers South Seas Healthcare and The Cause Collective based in South Auckland."

"A request for assistance from the Crisis Management Team in South Auckland was made to Sonny, to facilitate the process of members and their whānau being tested. Sonny was given exemption to cross the Auckland boundary, to complete this essential work.

"This travel was conducted under strict Covid-19 protocols enforced by health authorities and the police."

National's police spokesperson Simeon Brown said it was a kick in the guts for those who had been unable to cross the boundary.

"New Zealanders are sick and tired of seeing gang members break the law and then given special treatment," he said.

"In recent weeks they've totally ignored the restrictions the rest of the country has been abiding by and smuggled drugs, cash, guns and even people across the Auckland boundary into the Waikato.

"It now seems gang leaders can get exemptions far easier than many struggling businesses trying to move their goods, or employees trying to get to work."

He linked it to revelations $2.75m was provided to a Mongrel Mob-linked drug rehabilitation programme through the Proceeds of Crime Fund.

The party's leader Judith Collins said there was "no rhyme or reason" behind the exemptions.

"There are plenty of gang members in Auckland who could no doubt do that job and what we now have is confirmation from Chris Hipkins that a large number of the ... new cases of Covid are in the gang communities.

National Party leader Judith Collins during their press conference at Parliament, Wellington, 28 September, 2021.

Photo: Pool / NZME / Mark Mitchell

She said the gang status of infected cases was relevant to the outbreak.

"Other people generally comply with the law ... if you're living as a gang member outside of the law then basically, in the underworld, the criminal underworld, your chances of actually complying with orders seem to be pretty remote."

ACT leader David Seymour also harked back to the drug programme, and said the current outbreak was being driven via gang members as a logical conclusion of the government's approach to gangs.

"The government has to wear the responsibility for this outbreak continuing, driven on by the behaviour of gang members which they themselves have tended and nurtured over the past four years."

Hipkins acknowledged some gang members were "more active" than what would be consistent with alert level rules, but defended the exemptions - of which he confirmed there were two.

"There's no question about it, it poses some bigger challenges. Some of the people involved have been more active than would be consistent with the alert levels in the places that they have been.

"I haven't personally given the exemptions, they've been given by public health officials ... they have been there to help ensure there is cooperation with those who are doing the contact tracing, the testing and all of the other measures that go alongside the public health response.

"Ultimately our number one priority here is to stop Covid-19 in its tracks, and that means doing what we need to do to get in front of the virus ... where we have been able to enlist gang leaders to help with that and where they have been willing to do so, we have done that."

He said it was about encouraging vaccination, testing, tracing and following public health guidelines for the good of the community, and the government would do that wherever possible.

"Look, I have no time for the gangs. I don't have any sympathy for them, but the number one priority here has to be to stop Covid-19 ... if there was another community organisation or some other entity where we needed to get someone in, in order to make sure we were reaching into the places where we needed to reach to, then that's exactly what we would do.

"I think one of the biggest things that we have to do is to ensure that we get as much cooperation as possible and we do whatever we have to do to get that level of cooperation, within reason."

Cause Collective crisis response team spokesperson Jerome Mika said working with gang leadership had helped with the health response.

"It's actually the gang members that are encouraging our people to get tested so we can eliminate Covid and we can get back to normal life, businesses can reopen, people can go back to work, people can go back to schools.

Spokesperson Jerome Mika at a testing station for Assembly of God congregations in Māngere.

Jerome Mika Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

"Auckland, we've been through eight weeks of really ... tough times, but they [the gang members] have helped the community, they haven't gone against the grain."

He criticised National for their approach to the gangs.

"I haven't seen ... big media releases in the National Party about the couple that went to Wanaka. The inconsistency but also the bias and the stigma is uncalled for and I would ask them to start thinking through that before they start making those comments.

"It's about being able to build the relationship with communities and gain their trust so then we can have a conversation about whether it's a philosophical view, whether it might be a religious view in terms of why they're like they are, in terms of antivaxxers."

He said it had been crucial to work together with the gangs to get the response from the community.

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