Dozens of Māori-led checkpoints have sprung up to protect vulnerable communities but as the lockdown wears on leaders are calling for police and even defence force support.

As the threat of Covid-19 increased, Māori stepped up to ensure compliance and keep the deadly virus out of some of the country's most remote and vulnerable locations.

Māori overall die about seven years earlier than non-Māori, and are also more susceptible to a range of diseases, meaning they are more likely to contract and less likely to recover from Covid-19.

These factors are compounded in rural areas with poor access to healthcare.

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"Here is like a 'neat list' for the Covid-19 high risk category," said East Cape community leader Tina Ngata, of Ngāti Porou.

They started half a dozen checkpoints - from Wharekāhika in the north to Uawa in the south - at the beginning of the lockdown due to growing concern over tourists travelling through the area and a lack of action from police and local authorities.

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There has been one Covid-19 case recorded in Tairāwhiti, linked to overseas travel.

The checkpoints initially drew the vocal support of local police, and Gisborne District Council this week even credited them with helping stop the spread, but Ngata said little support has come on the ground.

The checkpoints were putting a strain on locals having to staff them, many with families to look after.

Today a checkpoint at Ruatoria closed due to a lack of support.

"Ultimately we'd all love to be able to go home - we need more support," Ngata said.

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They'd been calling on police to help out since the start of the lockdown, and were open to even the New Zealand Defence Force stepping in - which Gisborne District Council has also requested.

"We would love to have their presence, it would take the pressure off us and give it a bit more backing."

They'd reduced daily traffic flow from a peak of 146 vehicles to an average of about 40, but there were concerns of cars driving through at night.

Along with enforcing the isolation rules they were raising awareness about Covid-19, checking in with the community and collecting data in case there was an outbreak.

Their work and call for support has been backed by the Iwi Chairs Forum.

Pandemic Response Group leader Mike Smith said the checkpoints had been "very effective" with no community transmission in the areas they were operating.

"At the start they were getting a bit of grief people thinking they were 'vigilante-type' operations - but they have all stood up their operations very responsibly, been in touch with local authorities and been very effective.

"Not all groups want or need police or the Defence Force, but for those that do they should be supported."

Smith said the checkpoints were not only open to Māori, and he'd heard of communities on the South Island's West Coast, with their own vulnerable populations, concerned about unruly tourists looking into the idea.

A police spokeswoman did not address questions from the Herald about supporting community checkpoints, but said while officers were not deployed to them they visited them on shift as needed "to provide community reassurance and ensure they are operating safely".

The Herald has approached the New Zealand Defence Force for comment.

Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha previously said the role of police was to support such cultural responses to the pandemic.

"No one has set out to establish illegal roadblocks, this is about community police and Iwi taking the lead to ensure rural communities that don't have immediate access to support services are well protected."

Former Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira, who has been instrumental in establishing community checkpoints in his rohe, said there were now about 10 in place with a line protecting the north from Waitangi across to the west coast.

"At the moment we are fine with our resourcing, and work with the local police alongside us. They understand what we are doing and why. But Ngāpuhi being Ngāpuhi I don't think we'll be overly keen to have the Defence Force come in to bolster our ranks."

The response to the checkpoints had been "fabulous", he said.

"It is about protecting our community. A lot of it is education, checking in on each other, and when we come across tourists we turn them around and have contacts at Civil Defence in Whangārei where they can go.

"We just really want to keep it out of our rohe as an outbreak could be devastating."

Hone Harawira at the checkpoint at the bottom of Waiomio Hill, on State Highway 1 south of Kawakawa. Photo / John Stone
Hone Harawira at the checkpoint at the bottom of Waiomio Hill, on State Highway 1 south of Kawakawa. Photo / John Stone

The Government's Covid-19 modelling assumes Māori hospitalisation rates will be five times higher, and risk of death 2.6 times higher, than for Pākehā.

If the eradication goal fails, a Ministry of Health report has recommended "safe havens" be established across the country for vulnerable populations, including Māori.

During the influenza pandemic in 1918, the mortality rate was seven times higher for Māori than for Pākehā.

Checkpoints are also being operated by Bay of Plenty iwi Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāi Tūhoe in Te Urewera, and today Ngāti Manawa announced two checkpoints in Murupara.

Of the country's 1210 Covid-19 cases, about eight per cent are Māori, although the proportion has been gradually increasing.