Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has managed to get a whole pile of egg on the Government’s face with his suggestion last night that Aucklanders might have to be allocated timeslots to leave the city over summer if they wanted to leave.
Beehive sources say that the proposal which he let slip on RNZ Checkpoint last night is only one of a number under consideration.
It followed the Prime Minister telling an Auckland radio station yesterday that only people who had been double vaccinated and had a negative Covid test might be able to leave the city over the summer.
But Hipkins copped a barrage from the Opposition parties.
ACT leader, David Seymour, accused the Government of being “completely detached from reality.”
National Leader Judith Collins posted on Twitter a carless days sticker from 1979 and said the Government had “completely lost the plot.”
Nevertheless, Hipkins said those wanting to travel out of Auckland over summer should expect that it would be a reasonably time-consuming process if they were travelling by land.
“We’re working through our options on that at the moment and ways to potentially spread the travel so that it might be people get allocated the time in which they can travel,” he said.
Auckland’s southern border may not be a problem.
There is a reasonable confidence that Waikato, which currently has 73 per cent of its population double vaccinated, will reach 90 per cent before Christmas and at least open up the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty to Auckland holidaymakers.
But the northern border, just north of Wellsford on State Highway One, is a bigger challenge.
The Auckland –Northland section of State Highway One, characterized by Labour when they were in Opposition as the “holiday highway”, carries its heaviest annual traffic load in December and January.
A study produced for Waka Kotahi in 2019 showed that over 1000 cars an hour flowed north through Wellsford, the northern Auckland City boundary, in January.
Auckland’s northern boundary is the problem confronting the Government.
Auckland itself looks likely to hit the hoped-for 90 per cent double vaccination target shortly, possibly before the national review of all alert levels on November 29.
When it does, it will move to the traffic light system, which relies on vaccination certificates and does not include hard borders.
But Northland is lagging on vaccinations; only 65 per cent of the eligible population have had two shots so far, whereas the Auckland DHBs range from 78 to 85 per cent having had two shots.
Nevertheless, Hipkins yesterday was buoyed by what appears to be an increase in their vaccination rates.
“I have talked about the importance of getting vaccination rates up there,” he said.
“1482 doses were delivered yesterday; they’ve now had 80 per cent first doses. It’s good to see that progress.
However, the region still had to deliver 56,189 jabs, and even if that higher rate were to be constantly maintained, it would still be mid-December before it reached the magical 90 per cent target.
Thus Northland may not be able to enter the traffic light system before Christmas, and therefore its hard border will need to remain in place over the critical holiday period.
How that huge volume of cars is processed as their passengers’ vaccination certificates and Covid tests are checked is the challenge facing the Government.
Hipkins said yesterday that the first trial vaccination certificates would be rolled out within the next two or three days, and then he hoped that the country-wide rollout would be in “a few weeks”.
“I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence unless there’s a sudden spike in vaccinations overnight in Auckland that we’ll have the system ready to go before Auckland hits the 90 per cent mark,” he said.
But even if the certificates’ rollout to peoples’ phones goes smoothly, the system will require a negative Covid test, and there are still delays in getting the test results.
National’s Covid response spokesperson, Chris Bishop, yesterday unveiled replies to written questions which showed that from August 23-17 October 2116 positive community test results were returned in this most recent outbreak.
“A total of 605 positive community test results took more than 24 hours between the swab arriving at the lab and the result being uploaded, 100 took more than 48 hours and, incredibly, 16 positive tests took more than 72 hours,” he said.
Defending the Government’s record, Hipkins said the labs had been under a lot of pressure.
“But the test turnaround times have required a bit of attention and a bit more work,” he said.
“I know that the lab network is working hard to share samples across the country so that they can meet those turnaround time frames for processing test results.
“Of course, as our focus shifts around the country, as extra pressure gets added through extra testing, sometimes there’s a day or two where they have to recalibrate in order to be able to accommodate that.
“But no, I’m not satisfied with the test turnaround times.
“It is something that we continue to look closely at how we can help to make sure that we get those results back as fast as we can.”
But at present, Auckland is processing only about 12,000 tests a day.
If 30,000 or so Aucklanders want to travel north out of the city between Christmas and New Year and require negative tests to do so and the test return times remain slow, the potential for chaos, if not a crisis, is large.
There is also the immediate challenge of managing the return of Auckland’s university students to their home towns when exams finish in two weeks.
The Prime Minister has talked a lot about wanting to give people “a summer”; for many, particularly in Auckland, that means a trip to the northern bays and beaches.
Managing the Auckland- Northland border will be a critical political test for the Government as it exits from the rigidity of the Alert Level system to the traffic lights.