Auckland went back shopping yesterday, but all the signs coming out of the Beehive suggest that the Government will insist on maintaining the border around it over the Christmas-January period.
The apparent intransigence is so firm that Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday would not rule out any move to relax it when facing a succession of questions in Parliament.
Specifically, he did not rule out the prospect of cars being allocated timeslots to cross the border.
Passengers will need to be double vaccinated.
Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins, on behalf of Transport Minister Michael Wood, answering questions from National’s Chris Bishop, underlined the Government’s intention to restrict movement out of the city.
“At the same time, we need to strike the right balance and do what we can for the rest of the country, to try and ensure that it’s people and not the virus that moves beyond the Auckland boundary,” he said.
“No system will be perfect, and it will be challenging, but we’re looking at how we can use tools like vaccine certificates and testing to achieve these goals.”
But the certificates and testing are not the issue.
The question is, how will tens of thousands of cars be able to be checked so that they can cross the border.
Bishop: “Is the proposal of giving Aucklanders an allocated timeslot in order to leave Auckland during summer still under active consideration?”
Hipkins: “As I indicated in my primary answer, on behalf of the Minister of Transport, no decisions have been made at this point.”
The fact that Hipkins continues to refuse to rule that proposal out is also interesting.
The day after he originally floated it, Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson, said he didn’t think it would be particularly likely that there would be the kind of scheme where people were allocated a day to cross the border.
“I can’t see that being something that would happen,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be very practical, but we do have to find a way through in the event that we still have a boundary there.”
However Robertson conceded that the Government was doing preparatory work on the likelihood that Auckland would still need a border around it because of differing vaccination rates from the rest of the country.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that in that event, there is still the ability for Aucklanders to travel,” he said.
“Now then, we’ve got to work out a system of how to do that.”
While she was in Auckland yesterday, the Prime Minister met with the Northern Employers and Manufacturers’ Association (EMA). They have a deep interest in avoiding any major congestion on the motorways in and out of Auckland because they are the avenues through which trucks also travel.
The prospect of long queues and delays at the border will not be attractive to them.
Yet despite the insistence on maintaining the border, Hipkins yesterday also conceded that Covid would spread out beyond Auckland.
“Covid is not going to remain contained in Auckland, and I’ve said that as explicitly as I can for some weeks now, we are reaching the point where Covid will spread, and it will find unvaccinated people,” he said.
“That’s been the international experience.
“But no, we are not going to keep Auckland locked down.
“As the Prime Minister has indicated, we actually want Aucklanders to be able to travel for the summer holidays.”
Meanwhile, there is more controversy over the raising of restrictions on incoming international travellers isolating at home.
Academics from the University of Otago’s Wellington Public Health department on Tuesday published a blog saying an Aucklander was more likely to pick up Covid from standing in a supermarket queue than from an incoming double vaccinated traveller.
But yesterday, the University of Auckland’s Te Punaha Matatini Covid modelling team, whose work is part-funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment and by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, produced a counter blog arguing that allowing vaccinated arrivals to self-isolate would mean around 1 in 60 infected travellers would transmit the virus into the community.
The Wellington team are epidemiologists with medical degrees, whereas the Auckland team are physicists and statisticians.
Hipkins is obviously committed to opening the international border to self-isolating vaccinated travellers.
But the timing still looks like early next year. POLITIK understands that is also what the airlines are working towards.
“I think we are getting into a point where we things are going to look very different, you know, within the next three to four months in terms of the international border, in terms of trans-Tasman travel, in terms of travel throughout New Zealand and terms of the way we manage cases in the community,” he said.
“Everything is changing, and it is changing quite rapidly.”
And though the Government has committed to keeping the Australian bubble under review, New South Wales is still averaging over 200 news Covid cases a day while Victoria is up over 1000. Though Queensland is down to less than five a day, Hipkins sounded unenthusiastic about a state by state approach to the bubble.
“We looked at some of those low-risk Australian states, and one of the challenges there is that they are in the process of progressively removing their own restrictions, and so the risk profile there is changing as well,” he said.
“So, of course, we keep it under review, though.”
So it would seem that the international border will re-open in February or March next year, by which stage much of the country will be double vaccinated.
The Government’s only political problem with this is that the Christmas and summer holidays lie between now and then.