25 Aug 2021

Iwi say trust in police damaged after Northland Covid-19 checkpoints set up 7 days into lockdown

9:03 pm on 25 August 2021

Northland iwi say a police decision to create fixed checkpoints at the region's entrances more than a week after the country moved to alert level 4 is too little, too late.

A Covid-19 police checkpoint at Mercer on Monday 15 February

A police checkpoint during an alert level change earlier in 2021 (file image). Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

They also say they were blindsided by the announcement, after being assured they would be part of the process to protect whānau.

It's eight days since alert level 4 was announced, setting off a flood of cars, some with boats and caravans in tow, onto highways north.

It was then that Māori leaders, including Tai Tokerau Border Control coordinator Hone Harawira, called for the roads to be shut off.

"Te Tai Tokerau Māori are very vulnerable to Covid, especially our kaumātua and kuia, but our whānau generally," Harawira said.

"We are people who are heavily deprived living, to a large degree, in great levels of poverty. Our people are not healthy, eh, just not healthy."

It was that vulnerability, Harawira said, that drove the formation of Tai Tokerau Border Control by iwi leaders in previous national and Auckland-specific lockdowns.

Former MP Hone Harawira organised the Far North Covid-19 checkpoint.

Hone Harawira. Photo: RNZ / Talei Anderson

But this time, they held off from forming roadblocks and checkpoints. They said that decision followed assurances from the police.

Today, the police announced they were setting up fixed checkpoints at three of the entrances from Auckland to Northland, to ensure compliance with level four travel restrictions.

Harawira said doing that more than a week into alert level 4 was a joke, and now Northland was full of close contacts of Covid-19 cases.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held up a heat map of close contacts across the country, with the darkest concentration of contacts in the north.

"They wouldn't have been here if the police had whacked up a checkpoint and stopped everybody on day one," Harawira said. "We don't need you sitting down at the Brynderwyn's eight days later."

"When I saw that heat map I was absolutely gutted. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed. Ashamed of myself that as the coordinator of border control I allowed the police to talk me down - silly me."

Northland district commander Superintendent Tony Hill said in a statement announcing the fixed checkpoints that police had been out and about this past week, and that a number of motorists had been questioned and turned around.

He said police wanted whānau to feel safe, and they will continue to engage with communities and iwi.

Trust 'dented'

The southern entrances to Northland - where the checkpoints are - is Ngāti Whatua rohe.

But the chief operating officer of Ngāti Whatua runanga, Antony Thompson, said they were blindsided by the announcement.

"We're really disappointed that we were cut out of the conversations about the checkpoints and about setting up the checkpoints," he said. "It's what we were doing in conjunction, in a partnership with the police."

"But the really disappointing thing is to find out from external sources, not through our communication line that we've built and created over the, you know, over how many years have we tried to built a partnership with the police."

Thompson said the iwi had decades of health and social experience, and were able to communicate the importance of staying at home to whānau better than the police have been able to.

Harawira said Tai Tokerau Border Control was considering its next steps, but he said they had lost faith in the police.

Thompson said trust had been dented.

"The horse has bolted now, we're in day eight. Too little, too late."

"That's what the expectation of Ngāti Whatua was. Being excluded from conversations didn't help, being excluded from process and protocol, didn't help.

"But that's something that we're gonna have to sort out when we come out of this lockdown."

Northland district commander Superintendent Tony Hill said police have had an ongoing dialogue with Ngāti Whātua and the Te Tai Tokerau Border Patrol over the past week in relation to the deployment of staff across Northland during alert level 4.

Enforcement activities include roving patrols and temporary checkpoints at numerous locations.

"While we appreciate community leaders' commitment, police have decided to operate without volunteer involvement given there is a greater risk posed to our communities with the Delta variant."