The head of Waikato's Mongrel Mob chapter was given an essential worker exemption to travel in and out of Auckland last weekend.
Newstalk ZB can reveal the exemption was granted to Sonny Fatupaito – who has been working with some of the harder to reach communities in the city, such as those with gang affiliations.
In a statement, via a spokesperson, Fatupaito said he has been liaising with health officials and police to assist in reaching people in communities within the gang's chapters and their whanau in Auckland.
He was asked to travel to Auckland by South Seas Healthcare, which has been co-ordinating much of the response to the South Auckland clusters.
"This required immediate intervention from the senior leadership in the Waikato Kingdom, and this onsite intervention ensured compliance and welfare assistance was provided as needed."
He confirmed he had been given an exemption to travel across the Auckland boundary and he did so "under strict Covid-19 protocols, enforced by health officials and the police".
The level of Covid transmission within the gang community in Auckland is relatively unknown.
Speaking to Radio Hauraki, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that the Mongrel Mob boss had been part of their ongoing work to track and isolate Covid.
"We've got cases in gangs, and that makes this job really hard."
She said the person had not come for any reason other than to help with contact tracing.
Asked about anti-vaxxers, she said the biggest proportion of that group were people who were "waiting it out" to see the health effects, and it was very possible these people could be convinced by family and friends.
She said they were doing about 4000 first doses a day, and it was possible they could hit 90 per cent within a few weeks.
"I actually think we will get there, it just depends how long it will take," she said.
She said they were looking at using vaccine passports in hospitality venues as well as festivals and large-scale events.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Mike Yardley on Newstalk ZB, that the decision to grant a Mongrel Mob leader essential worker status to get through to Auckland was simply about eliminating Covid-19 and ensuring they could get accurate contact tracing information.
"No one's a fan of gangs, I'm not a fan of gangs, but ultimately needs must in this situation and we need to get Covid under control."
He said the last thing the Government needed was to miss them and for gangs to stop co-operating.
"If we have to bring someone into Auckland to make sure that they co-operate then that's what we have to do."
Asked what the public would be thinking about a gang member being granted essential worker status, Hipkins replied, "ultimately the public will want to see that we're stamping out Covid-19 cases".
"If that means that we've got Mongrel Mob or any other gang members in there we need to get information out of them. If we take a law and order, hard-line approach with them that's probably the worst thing we can do in regards to Covid because it will mean they will just stop giving us information."
He said the efforts by the senior Mongrel Mob member had been successful so far.
"It has, we have had a good degree of cooperation and we have been able to identify cases and their contacts and isolate those and stop the spread of Covid."
But Canterbury University director of criminal justice and gang historian Jarrod Gilbert says it's likely to be prevalent.
He said it's incredibly important that Fatupaito has been let into Auckland to talk to the gang-linked community.
"The country's health and its economy is really dependent on getting high vaccination rates and compliance – so we need to ensure that we have got people who can effectively communicate with these types of communities."
But National's police spokesman Simeon Brown is not convinced, and has called on the Government to front up on why Fatupaito was allowed to travel in and out of Auckland.
"This is something that most New Zealanders will find quite unacceptable – particularly in light of the fact there are so many stories of people who can't get into Auckland, such as a young father whose child is about to be born."
Videos, posted by Fatupaito to social media on October 1, show him at a border checkpoint, coming into Auckland.
"We're catching up with some usos ... some brothers making sure they're keeping to the regulations of Covid; not getting up to no good," he said.
On Sunday, he posted another video leaving the city.
"We've finished our mahi [work] here in Auckland and we're starting to head back to the mighty Waikato."
When asked about Fatupaito's trip across the border, a health spokesperson told Newstalk ZB: "[This] person has publicly stated that they moved across the boundary to support the outbreak response. This was approved as an essential worker exemption".
The spokesman said it's important the response is adaptable to recognise the needs and context of people impacted by Covid-19.
"The work done by the individuals assisting Auckland Regional Public Health Service includes engaging with the community about isolation requirements for positive cases and close contacts, encouraging testing for Covid-19 and helping facilitate welfare support."
Hipkins said it is important that everyone has trust in the public health response to Covid-19.
"I back any method that will help us to reach those who are hard to reach, and back the Ministry of Health and police to make the right decisions about how we do that.
"We need people to get tested for Covid-19 without fear of being prosecuted, and we need people to go into isolation and quarantine to keep the community safe. We also need people to be vaccinated to further protect the community from Covid-19."
Fatupaito, through a spokesperson, said the high level of risk is "far from over and the Mongrel Mob Kingdom will be facilitating further educational health programmes in the Waikato".
That event aims to target those who are vaccine-hesitant, providing them with support and strategies to get vaccinated.
"The consequence of failure is something many other countries have seen, hopefully NZ will continue to enjoy the benefits that isolation and strict contact protocols have brought."