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Heather Du Plessis-Allan: Opening Auckland’s border the toughest decision

OPINION:

Opening the Auckland border might be the hardest Covid decision Cabinet has had to make. Or will have to make, even. Because this decision will speed up the spread of Covid around the country and they know it.

But they shouldn’t be blamed for making it. The truth is the virus is already spreading. This week cases have popped up in Waikato, Northland, Thames, Taupo, Palmerston North, Levin, Christchurch and Tauranga.

Of course, the reality is that releasing hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders ahead of Christmas will ensure it travels further, faster.

And the token border checks won’t be enough to prevent that. Vaccination isn’t enough to prevent Aucklanders carrying Covid out. Even the double-jabbed can still transmit the virus. Random police spot checks won’t be enough to pick up the unjabbed refusing to get tested.

But there was no way around this. It was always obvious the border would have to come down for Aucklanders to enjoy summer.

Some 10,000 cars an hour pass through the region’s northern border at peak holiday time. Stopping and checking everyone would have taken so long, Christmas would’ve been and gone by the time the queues were cleared.

Testing capacity can hardly cope with 12,000 Aucklanders’ nasal swabs a day. It definitely couldn’t cope had the Government told all travelling Aucklanders to get a test. It might not actually even be able to cope with the need to test only the unjabbed.

And the nuclear option of keeping the border up wasn’t really an option at all. It would’ve been unreasonable to pen in Aucklanders over summer when the outbreak is already, inevitably spreading anyway.

Senior Cabinet ministers agonised before making this decision. Cabinet seemed split between those desperate for the border to stay and those realistic that it had to go. Officials spent weeks exploring every possible way to keep that border up and keep Covid as confined to Auckland as possible. That’s probably where Chris Hipkins’ derided border-booking idea came from.

Those ministers will be fully aware that voters aren’t always kind. There will be some in Covid-free parts of the country who will blame them for speeding up the virus’ release.

Frankly, that would be unfair. That border could only ever be a temporary measure. It’s done its job. It has bought everyone else outside of Auckland time to get the jab. A 90 per cent first-dose rate across the country is laudably high.

Fortunately for Cabinet, from hereon-in their decisions most likely get easier. The next biggest one will be the international border. Once Covid has reached most parts of the country, the irrational fear of reopening to the world should diminish. It’s very hard to be afraid of a smattering of Covid cases arriving at the airport each day when you have a hundred times as many popping up in your town on the same day.

This is not to say the polls will get easier, though. Blame could drag the polls down. So could the reality of life with Covid. Especially if the health system comes under pressures that could’ve been avoided through better preparation. Even more so if we experience not just one but several waves of the virus like other countries have. Ongoing restrictions could also be a poll drag. Just look at the mood in Auckland after months of curbed freedoms.

But while the hardest part might be yet to come for the majority of the country, at least the hardest decision’s out of the way.

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