Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is continuing her Bay of Plenty tour by visiting the first responders of the Whakaari / White Island tragedy in Whakatāne.
It is her first visit to the town since the December 9 eruption, which killed 21 people from four countries.
She was greeted by about 60 first responders including representatives from Coastguard, Volcanic Air, Whakatane Hospital, St John, and the New Zealand Fire and Emergency Service this morning.
The room was mostly quiet and some of the first responders watched with a harrowed look on their faces.
Ardern asked a group of people from Whakatane Hospital what they thought about Covid-19's impact on the community, and how it affected their ability to recover from Whakaari.
Bay of Plenty District Health Board team leader, emergency planning, Josephine Peters said "I think it has been hijacked".
"The community has gone through so much here in the Eastern Bay, not just with Whakaari but with Covid as well."
Peters also spoke of the camaraderie between not just emergency department staff but also that of emergency services personnel after the tragedy.
Facilities manager Neil Mower told the Prime Minister the support in the community came in different shapes and sizes "but that's how we look after each other".
Clinical lead for the Whakatane emergency department Tasmin Davies said recovery was going to be a "huge process" but reiterated the support that has been forged between emergency workers who responded to Whakaari.
When asked by media today about calls for a Royal Commission into Whakaari, Ardern said she was reluctant to double up on investigations into the tragedy.
Worksafe and the Coroner are already investigating. When asked whether there was a conflict of interest regarding Worksafe's involvement, Ardern said she had faith the appropriate questions will be answered.
Members of the Whakatāne community joined the media conference, including a practice nurse who asked when they would get a fair pay deal.
Ardern replied that negotiations were frequent and ongoing but in regards to pay parity, she was unable to interfere with DHBs.
Comfort in having the pain acknowledged
On the banks of the Whakatāne River, Whakatane mayor Judy Turner told NZME the affects from Whakaari were still deeply felt by many, particularly the first responders.
"This has changed their lives forever and to have that acknowledged and remembered is special.
"The first responderssaw things and dealt with things they never thought they would have to."
Ardern's visit was a salve, of sorts, for some, she said.
"I think sometimes there is comfort in having the pain acknowledged. As a community what happened sits in our hearts and our minds."
Turner referred to trying to watch a short documentary on Whakaari on television a few months ago but found she was still so affected by the disaster, she had to turn the TV off.
"I spoke to others and so many people had the same reaction. Maybe we never will be able to process it, maybe we will."
Local men and tour guides Tipene Maangi and Hayden Marshall-Inman were among those who died. Marshall-Inman's body has not been found.
Of the survivors, dozens suffered life-changing injuries and spent many months in hospital needing surgery and skin grafts for burns. Ardern will later visit some of the town's larger employers.
Today is Ardern's third day campaigning in the Bay of Plenty.
Ardern told NZME yesterday she spent much of her childhood in the Bay of Plenty while visiting her grandparents.
She also revealed she ran as a list MP based in the Bay, working alongside then Rotorua MP (now mayor) Steve Chadwick and list MP Moana Mackey.
- More to come