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After four months locked behind the Auckland border, residents of New Zealand's biggest city are finally free to flee the region's boundary from today.
It is the first time the borders around the city have been lifted since the country was plunged into level 4 lockdown on August 17, with thousands of people expected to flood out by air and by road.
It follows news of a New Zealand brush with Omicron in Australia as 80 new Covid-19 cases were announced yesterday, and comes as wild conditions continue to batter parts of the North Island.
Police: 'We expect it to start building'
Police reported a smooth night at checkpoints in the south and north of the city, with minimal delays to traffic.
"There was a small queue of cars waiting from between 11pm and midnight," a statement just after 5.30am said.
Police estimated fewer than 100 vehicles went through each of the main borders at Mercer and Te Hana and that the early morning traffic today is flowing freely.
"However, we expect it to start building as normal for peak hour traffic."
'It's a very good start up here': Northland police
Northland police district commander Tony Hill told Newstalk ZB's Mike Yardley today that it had been a quiet night with little traffic so far.
"It's actually been quite quiet overnight but it's starting to pick up now. Overnight there were no queues at all so it was really positive."
Most of the traffic moving was locals going about their daily routine, he said.
Every car was being checked at this stage because the numbers were low and they had the capacity to do so.
A total of two vehicles had been turned around so far.
"It's a very good start up here."
Asked whether police will check "every car", Hill said they "absolutely" would.
"Absolutely if we could check every car coming out of Auckland that would be ideal, but as we get busy we will see how that goes."
Hill said police wanted to make sure that the checkpoint "was as smooth as possible".
Te Tai Tokerau Border Control leader Hone Harawira said he had been at the Northland checkpoint at midnight, when the weather was "stormy". Despite that, he said hundreds of people had been checked and got through.
He told TVNZ's Breakfast that most people had taken note of the rules to cross the border from Auckland, but that at least two vehicles had been turned around at Maungaturoto.
"As far as I know, maybe less than half a dozen have been turned around here and we've had probably thousands through by now," he said, speaking from Waipū.
Harawira said there were some processes that they needed to sort out, including with police.
He acknowledged that some iwi members who had volunteered to help at the checkpoint had been turned away on arrival because they had not been police vetted.
Five main iwi members had gone through the police vetting process and been cleared. But because the others had come as volunteers, it was not thought that they needed to do that.
Harawira said there were only a very few people had been turned away from crossing the border.
He made it clear that it was not about keeping Aucklanders out.
"Haere mai," Harawira said.
"It's about making sure those that do come are not going to impact adversely on our population."
He said there could still be some "damage", but they were okay at the moment.
Harawira encouraged locals to get out there and get vaccinated.
He took the opportunity to call on people in Kaitaia - where vaccination drives are happening today and tomorrow - to get out and get the jab.
Asked where he and his whānau would be spending Christmas, Harawira laughed: "There's nowhere better than Te Tai Tokerau."
As the city's border reopens today, 20-year-old Miriam Rhodes will travel from Auckland to her home town of Dargaville for the first time since February.
Seeing her mum and siblings for the first time in months, Rhodes said she was excited but also nervous to make the two-and-a-half hour journey north.
"It does make me feel a bit uneasy knowing I'm entering somewhere where a lot of people aren't vaccinated."
She planned to leave about 5pm and hoped the later start would help avoid heavy traffic.
Aucklander Suzanne Werder was also itching to reunite with family after more than four months apart.
She and her partner are flying to Christchurch on Wednesday to visit their son who moved to Timaru earlier this year.
"It's more about seeing the person than getting out of Auckland," she said.
Her 23-year-old son celebrated his birthday over the weekend, making the visit extra special, and Werder would also meet her niece's newborn baby.
Werder is fully vaccinated and recently received her booster shot, but she also sought a PCR test as a precaution.
More than 12,000 people are booked to fly out of Auckland today, including 1700 who are flying to Christchurch – the most popular route from the city. Auckland Airport has advised passengers to arrive at the terminal an hour before the scheduled departure.
Unvaccinated travelers will also need to show proof of a supervised negative rapid antigen test, which will be available at around 600 New Zealand pharmacies from today.
The Ministry of Health says 250,000 tests have been dispatched to pharmacies, but some were still waiting on stock the afternoon before the rollout.
Persistent wild conditions across the country could encumber some travel plans this week, with severe weather warnings in place for parts of the North Island and upper South Island.
Heavy rain lashed parts of Auckland yesterday afternoon, and Auckland from Whangaparāoa Peninsula northwards, including Great Barrier Island, has a watch in place until 5am.
Parts of Feilding and Manawatū have been left under water, and people in Bay of Plenty are being warned of bouts of heavy rain until 11am today.
Cyclone Ruby continues to move over New Caledonia as a strong Category 2 storm, with WeatherWatch warning it could bring wild weather and flooding to parts of the North Island.
Waka Kotahi advised motorists to expect delays as barriers were dismantled at boundary checkpoints that had been in place for more than 100 days. Southbound traffic was told last night to expect road closures from 10pm to 1am, when the border would be officially removed.
Stop/go traffic management would also be in place for motorists travelling into Auckland.
AA is urging motorists to expect busy roads. Other countries had seen a surge in crashes when regions came out of lockdown-type conditions.
Road safety spokesman Dylan Thomsen suggesting motorists travel early or late in the day if possible to avoid heaviest traffic.
Thomsen advised motorists against giving expectant family or friends a specific time of arrival, to avoid putting pressure on themselves to rush.
He also said motorists might be a little rusty if they had been in lockdown over the past few months, and asked drivers to be patient with one another.
Since September 6 more than 2.1 million vehicles had been stopped at the checkpoints north and south of the Auckland border, with only 0.9 per cent turned around due to non-compliance, according to Auckland Police.
Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers said it had been a long three months with staff sometimes working in very tough conditions.
New compliance checkpoints being set up in two Northland locations came into effect at 11.59pm last night, requiring travelers from Auckland to be fully vaccinated or show evidence of a negative test.
They have been established due to concerns from iwi leaders about the potential risk of Covid-19 on vulnerable communities, and will be in place for a short time when the bulk of travel is expected to occur.
Northland District Commander Superintendent Tony Hill told Heather du Plessis-Allan that the intention would be to check every single car from Auckland, but he would not say how much delay would become intolerable.
Act Party leader David Seymour said the queues leaving Auckland to head north would be "unreasonably long and a safety risk" if police were to check every passenger.
Meanwhile, local leaders in the Tairāwhiti Gisborne region are also calling for checkpoints around the region to protect its residents from Covid-19 this summer.
The lifting of the Auckland border comes a day after 80 new cases of Covid-19 were announced around the country – 51 in Auckland, 21 in Waikato, seven in Bay of Plenty and one in Lakes.
Several members of a flight crew were also identified as close contacts of an Omicron variant case in Australia.
Arriving in New Zealand on Monday night, the crew are now in an MIQ facility, as per standard international air crew arrival procedure.