"This is war. If we lose it, boy do we lose? We've got to win."

Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell's military background has come to the fore as the former lieutenant colonel heads a Bay of Plenty-wide response to stopping the spread of Covid-19.

Powell, who is chairman of the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Emergency Management Group, said society was in a battle with the virus and needed to treat its response as such.

"There's no option not to. We have to win but the only way to do that is to remain in lockdown."

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If we surrendered, we surrendered to death, he said.

Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell is welcomed onto Whareroa Marae by Ngai te Rangi. He is pictured with council chief exeutive Marty Grenfell. Photo / File
Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell is welcomed onto Whareroa Marae by Ngai te Rangi. He is pictured with council chief exeutive Marty Grenfell. Photo / File

Powell said his biggest concern was managing homelessness amid the Covid-19 fallout. Ensuring people stayed at home was another significant challenge as Kiwis were typically free-spirited, brave and did not like being told what to do, he said.

"But this is not the time to be any of that. It's time to do as we are told."

Powell's military service in the New Zealand Defence Force spans 27 years, including a posting as Deputy Commander of a United Nations mission in Lebanon in 2001-02.

"Obviously, the military are trained to operate, live and work in very tough circumstances and it's interesting the process we are going through right now."


Powell said there were four phases to war: advance, attack, withdraw and defence.

"We are very much in the defence phase. There's nothing to attack. Until someone develops something that kills this dreadful virus, we have to hunker down.

"To me, it's the most difficult phase of war - sitting, watching and waiting for something that might not happen."

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Homelessness has become Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell's top priority in the fight against Covid-19. Photo / Getty Images
Homelessness has become Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell's top priority in the fight against Covid-19. Photo / Getty Images

The biggest challenge Tauranga faced during the lockdown was assisting the homeless through the crisis, he said.

"There are a whole lot of homeless people ... we don't want them clustering together in big groups. We want to make sure they are genuinely looked after."

Powell said the risk of potential community outbreak was particularly high among homeless who usually gathered together for meals and company, often using public facilities.

This was part of a decision to strategically leave some Tauranga public bathrooms open, with more frequent cleaning.

"Geographically, we are a very small city but we do have a lot of homelessness. To close the toilets, as some [other councils] have, is just going to create more problems."

As part of the nation's alert level 4 the emergency management group under the civic national state of emergency enforced by the Government has the power to offer motels, empty through the lockdown's restrictions, to homeless people in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19. And it was planning to do exactly that, Powell said.

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"What I'm doing is doing what any good commander would be doing, making sure that teams are resourced well and managing any stress points. And our big stress point right now is homelessness.

"We need to make sure we are looking after our most vulnerable. This is why it's my primary focus."

Powell said he could not be prouder of the Tauranga City Council team, particularly chief executive Marty Grenfell , for the long hours being poured into ensuring the city still runs while also fighting the virus.

Laura Wood from Under the Stars, which feeds the homeless, said only 14 people turned up to collect a food bag on Thursday. Many were worried about police and walking around, she said.

"At the moment many are feeling forgotten and worried about their health. They are worried about the police and they are unable to charge their phones.

"I'm worried they will turn more to drugs and alcohol, while available, which could lead to riskier behaviour."

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She said Powell's motels plan was "fantastic" as it would give the homeless access to showers, soap and beds and allow them to self-isolate safely. At the moment they were in cars, tents, benches and under bridges.

Te Tuinga Whānau Services Trust director Tommy Wilson said it was already housing about 117 families and he expected that demand to climb for the most vulnerable in the community including the homeless.

The social agency was already using 30 motel units.

Wilson said he had spoken to Powell about concerns which included women and children at risk from family violence.

''The challenge is you've got to be able to put in all those wraparound services when you get them in there,'' Wilson said.

A police spokeswoman said people were able to leave their home as long as they stayed local, "and just like people are able to go to the supermarket ... they can leave home to collect food".

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Government agencies and local welfare service providers had been working to make sure homeless people connected with what's happening, had a place to go, and could continue connecting with services, she said.

Hospitality New Zealand accommodation sector Bay of Plenty chairman Tony Bullot said he hoped Civil Defence would ask first before it used the power of requisition on any motels for homeless people.

"I'm sure moteliers will voluntarily do it as these are extraordinary times. But in New Zealand ... some sort of fee should be attached or effectively we'd be paying the rent for other people.''

- Additional reporting Carmen Hall