In a remarkable move, the Northern Region district health boards have supported an iwi call directed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for people not fully vaccinated to be kept out of Tai Tokerau.
It follows a week of iwi-led responses to the growing Delta outbreak – now at 82 cases - with talks of Bay of Island roadblocks and the continued closure of Maitai Bay in the Karikari Peninsula.
Those moves have been met with mixed emotions as some local community leaders defend their necessity as Delta spreads and others slam them for the harmful economic impact they may have.
The latest is a letter addressed to Ardern and Health Minister Andrew Little jointly penned by Northern Iwi-DHB Partnership Board - Kōtui Hauora - chairpersons Wallace Rivers, Aperahama Edwards, Rhonda Kite, and independent chair Gwen Tepania-Palmer on behalf of Te Kahu o Taonui iwi.
It calls for unvaccinated or single-dosed visitors to be kept out of the region until Northland has 90 per cent of Māori and non-Māori vaccinated.
Northland DHB chief executive Nick Chamberlain and chairman Harry Burkhardt signed in support of the letter alongside chief executives and chairpeople from Waitematā, Auckland and Counties Manukau DHBs.
Together the four DHBs represent more than a third of the country's population.
Burkhardt also signed his support in his role as Ngāti Kuri chairman, alongside 11 other high profile iwi chairpeople who represent the entire region.
"Tai Tokerau has enough of their own unvaccinated people to challenge their fragile health services without a large number coming from further south," the letter reads.
Northland remains 22,791-second doses away from 90 per cent of people being fully vaccinated.
Currently, 76 per cent of eligible Northlanders are double dosed and 85 per cent have had the first jab.
"Modelling predicts many thousands of cases during 2022 and we are concerned that the holiday period will accelerate this significantly."
Iwi has been hit particularly hard by the virus in Northland. As the letter stated, 72 per cent of cases were Māori.
"There is a huge amount of mahi continuing at a community, marae, whānau and individual level to increase vaccination rates, but as we are sure you're aware, there is only very slow improvement."
Currently, 63 per cent of the 50,488 Māori eligible in Northland are fully vaccinated.
The letter goes on to state that while the Northland DHB has made "good progress" improving hospital facilities – such as ventilator capacity – "workforce capacity" will still be the "greatest challenge".
"Currently Whangārei Hospital has 98 per cent occupancy and we know that during the summer holiday, up to another 50,000 cram into Tai Tokerau."
Although health authorities and the social sector have plans to manage unvaccinated Covid cases in Northland, "it is difficult to accurately model or plan for a significant influx of unvaccinated people over the holiday period".
And the clock is ticking for Northland as the hard border keeping Auckland at arm's length is set to be lifted on December 15.
Police will then carry out spot checks to ensure travellers either have My Vaccine Pass or a negative Covid test from within the last 72 hours – of which the letter writers have "grave concerns" regarding enforcing compliance.
"We also recognise the Covid Protection Framework will be in place but do not believe that will be enough to protect whānau if there is an influx of visitors carrying the virus.
"We know that the virus is the problem, not the people, but unfortunately it comes attached to the people.
"We are aware that this letter is challenging, however we cannot see another way to keep Tai Tokerau whānau safe and ensure the health social care system is able to cope."
Northland Hospitality Association branch chairman John Maurice, also the owner of the Bank Bar in Kaikohe, said he preferred visitors to be fully vaccinated but acknowledged some local businesses had unvaccinated staff who had until January to receive their jabs.
And with the My Vaccine Pass required at hospitality venues anyway, Maurice thought banning unvaccinated or partially vaccinated holidaymakers wouldn't make much difference to the industry.
He also doubted its ability to be enforced if the Government did agree, given the existing "porous" border.
"If they wanted to do it they would need a very hard border and thoroughly check everybody that comes through - and they are just not going to do that," Maurice said.
Former New Zealand First MP and Bay of Islands resident Shane Jones (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kahu) wanted to see Northland "open its arms to all the tourists" as they "open their wallets" to "save" the region's economy.
And for whānau to get busy vaccinating their own, he said.
Jones had earlier criticised plans by Te Tii Waitangi ki Te Pēwhairangi to re-establish last year's Covid border controls at Oromahoe Rd south of Ōpua, down to the Russell Ferry and Puketona in the north-east – ultimately severing visitor access to Ōpua, Waitangi, Russell, and Paihia.
The plans were revealed in a leaked email sent to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, police, Northland District Health Board, and local iwi groups.
The email said the border control measure was about protecting the whakapapa and community during "these trying times".
Jones called the plans a "publicity stunt" that the Government and New Zealand Police failed to defend the rights of businesses, employers, and investors from.
"What's the point of trying to save lives when you're destroying livelihoods."
Tai Tokerau Border Control founder Hone Harawira (Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Hine, Te Aupouri, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua) hit back at Jones' claims, saying it was about survival for Māori.
"Nationwide, Māori are 7.5 times more likely to catch Delta, 5.4 times more likely to be hospitalised from Delta, and 4 times more likely to die from Delta."
"That situation is even worse in Tai Tokerau where Maori have alarmingly high rates of liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and emphysema - all the conditions where Delta thrives," Harawira said.
"On top of that, we also have the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Now, this has nothing to do with pulling f****** stunts what I have just given you are the facts."
Harawira said the Government's decision to let 50 to 80,000 people travel north – despite opposition from iwi – will "devastate" Tai Tokerau whānau.
"Aucklanders have been locked down for four months, you think they're going to come out and be polite about anything - hell no."
"It's going to be get out of our f****** way mate, Jacinda said I'm free and I'm not going to stop for you."
Harawira said the tension around iwi-led responses to the growing Covid pandemic was because two different worlds were colliding and the stakes were high.
"On one hand you've people who are scared and on the other hand you've got people who are angry."
The Advocate has approached the Northland DHB for comment.