Northland community leader Hone Harawira says breaches of Auckland’s northern boundary are out of control, and NZ Police is ignoring the advice of people on the ground.
Hone Harawira (Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Hine, Te Aupouri, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua) thinks “it’s only a matter of time” before someone dies from Covid-19 in Te Tai Tokerau.
The activist and former MP has been on patrol for border breaches alongside a faithful team of volunteers since the delta variant first broke out, aiming to keep the north free of Covid-19. The group has been dubbed Te Tai Tokerau Border Control (TTBC).
“We want to be able to respond to Covid-19 threats when and where they arrive and move fast. When we need to move, we’ll move and worry about being told off by the police later,” Harawira says.
A series of recently publicised border breaches is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Harawira, who says the problem is spread far and wide. He says the first issue is a lack of willingness from police to communicate and pool resources with groups on the ground, such as TTBC. Although TTBC has offered its assistance to police with efforts in enforcing the border with Auckland, Harawira says they have simply been ignored.
“The police are still acting like colonials. It feels like they’re acting like the armed constabulary moving into Parihaka, making out like they know what’s good for Māori… Our line has always been that border control should be a partnership between iwi and the police,” says Harawira.
The border breaches and attempted breaches have been coming in many shapes and forms. Landowners who live on the border have allegedly been allowing people to cross over on their land. Others are travelling north to attend tangi without exemptions, driving down the back roads while those with the proper paperwork distract the police. Some have even tried crossing on the rail lines. Harawira says an already under-resourced police team is struggling to keep up with those attempting to cross the border.
“The Crown has allowed the police to drop the hard border and work on mobile patrols. Ask any policeman, there’s plenty of roads into the north. The police said themselves that it’s too hard to maintain hard borders, saying that it took up too many resources and requested mobile patrols instead. By refusing the assistance of iwi and border control workers, the police are stretching their own already limited capacity to manage the problems,” Harawira says.
Besides the obvious breaches, there are also more subtle rule flouters who still pose a major risk to the wellbeing of Northland’s population. A part of the problem is a disconnect between the Ministry of Health, which grants the border exemptions, and the people living in the north who are at risk from border failures and rule flouters. Harawira says a majority of the people he speaks to would actually prefer whānau from Auckland to stay away until the outbreak is under control, given that it is simply too difficult to enforce the rules on those granted exemptions.
“People are stopping at McDonald’s on the way to a tangi and everyone gets out; they need to use the toilet, and it doesn’t take long before there’s a table full of locals and outsiders mixing. Others are getting Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment [MBIE] exemptions but a quarter of what they’re bringing up here is actually for work, the rest is their jet skis and surfboards,” says Harawira.
The Waimanoni resident says there are many challenges that come with letting people cross borders, especially balancing the medical requirements of some with the wellbeing of the general population. Unfortunately, says Harawira, a large number of those travelling to Auckland for legitimate medical reasons end up breaking the rules. To help with such challenges, Harawira would like to see the police enforce mandatory QR scanning once people arrive at their destination after crossing the border. The person would be required to scan in within a specified time limit, which accounts for variables such as traffic. If they fail to do so, they would be apprehended.
Another issue Harawira says TTBC would like to have some influence over is the granting of border exemptions and travel permits. According to Harawira, the police are falling victim to creative storytelling and the vetting process for border travel exemptions is simply inadequate. Harawira says the police are also failing to acknowledge the connections and intel groups such as TTBC have access to, which could benefit police efforts when breaches appear.
“The assumption that the police will arrest someone and that person will tell them what they’ve actually been doing over the last week or so is a joke. Nobody’s going to tell the police what they’ve been doing and if they do, most times it’s a lie.
“A prime example was when they told us about a mother from Kaikohe. She wasn’t from Kaikohe. We knew who she was, we knew where she was from, we knew all of her whānau,” Harawira says, referring to a woman who was arrested and tested positive after travelling around Northland last week.
A spokesperson from NZ Police says they have been working closely with Ngāti Whātua throughout this period. When asked if they had abandoned a “hard border”, they said they have continued to operate boundary checkpoints at Auckland’s northern boundary since they were put in place in early September, and their approach remains the same.
“Travel across an alert level boundary remains restricted and motorists must present the required documentation and exemption, otherwise they will be turned around.”
As of 11.59pm on October 6, a total of 100,026 have been stopped at checkpoints on the northern boundary, with 1,578 vehicles having been turned around.
Harawira says the statistics from the latest outbreak shows that Māori and Pasifika communities are more likely to contract the disease, due to the high rates of communal living. With the government seemingly moving away from an elimination strategy to one of learning to live with Covid-19 in the community, Harawira is concerned Māori in Te Tai Tokerau will fall victim to the virus.
“That doesn’t work in Māori communities with high comorbidities. Māori people will die unnecessarily. We will die because the government has chosen to rebuild an economy for the people up the higher ends of society, whilst the people at the lower ends are dying,” he says.
With what he describes as a clear lack of interest from the police, under-resourced iwi, and no support from DHBs or the Ministry of Health, Harawira says groups like TTBC will continue to rely on themselves and each other until support can be found. Members from TTBC are currently training with people from similar groups in Ngāti Whātua and the two groups are exploring how they can work together. In the meantime, Harawira supports mandatory vaccination for all people receiving government money or business owners wanting to operate again.
“If you want vaccination to be taken seriously, you say it’s mandatory. Every person receiving government money, whether you’re a nurse, a teacher, or on the dole, you will get vaccinated within your next two paychecks or you won’t get money. Then you say to every small business owner: ‘If you want to open again, we need to see your vaccination card,’ Harawira says.