As New Zealand lifts Covid lockdowns, some small towns ask tourists to stay away

Local leaders, particularly in vulnerable Māori communities, fear travellers could bring the virus with them

Every summer, with Christmas and New Year stacked in the middle of the hot season, city-dwelling New Zealanders pack their car boots and make for the beaches, festivals and campgrounds dotting the country’s coastlines and remote forests.

As the country prepares to lift its last lockdowns, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised that the “classic kiwi summer” will roll on. But this year, there are fears that packed among their chilly bins and camping chairs, holidaymakers will bring other baggage – infectious particles of Covid-19, carried to communities ill-prepared to greet it. In the face of that prospect, leaders of some of New Zealand’s small towns and settlements have returned to prospective holidaymakers with a blunt message: please stay away.

“At Christmas I will sit out here on my veranda, and I will watch literally hundreds and hundreds vehicles, just heading north,” says Hone Harawira, former parliamentary representative for Te Tai Tokerau, a region at the far northern tip of New Zealand. “If the doors are open, quite literally tens of thousands of Aucklanders will be coming – there’s nothing to stop anyone.”

‘You may as well send up body bags’

Auckland, the centre of New Zealand’s thousands-strong Covid outbreak, has been in a strict lockdown for nearly 100 days. As the region approaches 90% of eligible adults vaccinated, Ardern announced those restrictions would soon be lifted – and alongside them, the strict border that has prevented all non-essential travel in or out of the city. While that reprieve was greeted with relief and celebration by many Aucklanders, experts and community leaders say it could also send a huge influx of Covid-carrying Aucklanders around the country, seeding the virus in communities with far lower vaccination rates and fewer health resources.

“You may as well send up body bags,” northern iwi [tribal] leaders said when the news was first announced. The area’s isolation and dramatic terrain – some of the very attributes that make it so attractive to holidaymakers – also make its population vulnerable to Covid outbreaks. The region is served by just a handful of ICU hospital beds, and many towns are an hours-long drive from the nearest health facilities. On top of that, vaccination rates – particularly among Māori – are lagging up to 30 percentage points behind Auckland.

Northland from the top of the Brynderwyn Hills
Northland from the top of the Brynderwyn Hills Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

“You’ve got to remember we don’t have the services or infrastructure to cope with a large outbreak,” says Antony Thompson, spokesperson for Te Kahu o Taonui, a collective of 12 iwi in the north.

“Right now we’re just not ready, that’s all it is,” Harewira says. “Māori in Te Tai Tokerau [Northland] are currently 60% vaccinated. That’s a long, long way from the 90% that is the standard for Auckland.”

Harawira has spent months during the latest outbreak running checkpoints, or pou korero [talking posts] to ensure people entering the region aren’t in breach of Covid rules. Soon, however, most of those restrictions will be formally lifted. Without any backing from central government, he’s concerned that visitors will simply breeze on through. “As far as they’re concerned, to hell with the local yokels,” he says. “[People will say] we’ve got the keys to the north, we’ve been given the go-ahead by the prime minister herself, so get out of the way.”

“Unfortunately, I think the message being provided by government is go, go, go.”

While the government has indicated people need to be fully vaccinated or produce a negative test to leave the city, there isn’t any comprehensive system in place, beyond possible spot checks, to ensure that carloads of tourists are compliant.

“You’re going to see the virus seeded everywhere,” epidemiologist and public health prof Michael Baker said last week. Baker said the South Island may be better protected, given the requirements for vaccine passports on flights and ferries, but summer travel around the North Island was likely to lead to widespread transmission.

Thompson says spot checks will not be sufficient. “Thirty thousand cars leave Auckland on a daily basis during summer. Can you really honestly hand on heart say that you can pick up which cars … don’t have vaccinated people in them?”

Inland, in Te Urewera, the North Island ex-national park now governed by Tūhoe, the tribe has said it will be closed to visitors until the end of January. “Te Urewera is unique,” said board chair Tāmati Kruger. “Unlike New Zealand’s national parks, it is the home of Tūhoe communities, including some of the country’s most remote and vulnerable populations during the current pandemic.”

But elsewhere, communities don’t have the option of simply closing private campgrounds or public roads. Instead, they’re relying on the goodwill of potential visitors: at the very least, be double vaccinated – and at best, consider delaying your summer road trip one more year. “I’d ask that [the rest of the country] join with me in a campaign to have Christmas moved to 25 January,” Harawira says. “If we hit 90% by then, we’ll open our arms to the nation. We’d welcome people here.”

“I live in Auckland, I’ve been going to the exact same thing every other Auckland has been going through,” Thompson says. “I’d love to go north, I’m from the north as well. But my family, we’ve made the conscious decision to stay home.”


Tess McClure in Christchurch

The GuardianTramp

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