CCTV footage of Northport workers interacting with ship crew in December has been overwritten, leaving questions of its potential risk unanswered.
The footage, at the centre of a Northern Advocate article in January, was the key piece of evidence NZ Customs used to determine no breach of the Maritime Border Order.
However, Northport spokesman Peter Heath said although he would like to release it, the port's security footage is only kept for a month, unless there is a requirement for it to be retained.
The Northern Advocate requested a copy of the footage in January, but this was declined.
National Party deputy leader Shane Reti, who believed further investigation was necessary in January, said prudent management would have been to keep the footage and he saw Northport's initial refusal to share it as "not good enough", given its relevance to public safety.
On December 18 about 6.45pm, seven people disembarked the international log-carrying vessel, S E Kelly, at the Whangārei port and allegedly interacted with several port staff. It is claimed five of the seven ship crew were transported via a personnel cage on a forklift by a port worker further up the vessel from the back.
The two crew members not on the forklift entered the foreman's office near the ship, allegedly walking past a smoko room containing other port workers. The first entered the office to arrange the forklift. The second also entered the office, allegedly without personal protective equipment (PPE) on, to discuss the forklift incident.
After NZ Customs heard about it, officials port staff and Maritime Union of New Zealand representative Rex Pearce reviewed the footage.
According to Pearce, the CCTV footage was very grainy and showed only two of the ship crew on the forklift wearing masks, none were wearing gloves and some crew within one metre of the forklift driver.
Despite this, a NZ Customs spokesperson said no breaches of the Maritime Border Order (MBO) were found - an order put in place to prevent Covid-19 transmission.
A December 18 email between Maritime NZ staff - released under the Official Information Act - detailed how reports from Northport alleged PPE was not being worn, except when NZ Customs officers were present. It also alleged the second person to enter the office - believed to be S E Kelly's supercargo, or ship owner representative, - was not wearing PPE.
The email detailed the potential transmission risk posed by the crew's use of a forklift to move along the boat. In January, Maritime Union of New Zealand general secretary Craig Harrison said normal practice was for crew to walk across the load, radioing to any nearby cranes, or to be transported via personnel cage lifted by a crane.
The email said it was believed stevedores and ship crew would time their activities to coincide with NZ Customs officers not being present.
However, NZ Customs chief customs officer Hadyn Godinet confirmed no PPE breaches had been identified, but did refer the use of a forklift to Maritime NZ.
In January, a Maritime NZ spokesperson said after the review of the incident, the stevedore company involved, Independent Stevedoring Limited (ISL), had since introduced a "standard operating procedure" (SOP) for such instances.
In January, ISL Northport branch manager Philip Meara confirmed the new SOP was in place but declined to describe it.
However, he did confirm the incident was now being considered a "disciplinary matter" because crew had come off the vessel and been transported by forklift.
Meara could not be contacted for further comment.
When questioned by the Northern Advocate, a NZ Customs spokesperson said Customs officers' account of the footage provided sufficient evidence to refute the claims in the email between Maritime NZ staffers.
Through the Official Information Act, NZ Customs sent screenshots of the footage to the Northern Advocate, but they were too grainy to determine whether anyone was wearing PPE.
The NZ Customs spokesperson said the images did not reflect the clarity of the footage. When asked to release the footage, the request was denied as NZ Customs did not have a copy.
Heath said Northport was guided by NZ Customs as to whether a breach had occurred. Despite this, Heath said the incident was used as a reminder for organisations at the port to adhere to safety protocols.
"Northport continues to do everything it can to ensure that procedures are enforced and protocols followed by all organisations which have staff working at the port."
Heath said the allegation port users ignored protocol when NZ Customs staff were not present was nonsensical, given NZ Customs' significant surveillance of the area.
Pearce, who refuted NZ Customs' finding, said the situation was "ridiculous" given what NZ Customs staffers told him directly after the incident.
"The NZ Customs officers and I saw that there was no PPE being worn by the supercargo and they also said themselves they couldn't determine if all the [crew] were wearing PPE when they came off the boat," he said.
Pearce believed it was highly likely ship crew and stevedores could have timed their activities depending on NZ Customs' presence, especially if the officers were inexperienced.
"I would imagine that whoever wants to run rings around [NZ Customs officers], the stevedores and the crew will just run rings around them."
He said the incident added to concerns regarding Covid-19 protection at the border.