If ever there was a time for an apology from this Government, it would be for the bureaucratic blunder that forced Northland into lockdown last year.
Documents, obtained under the official information act, reveal clear evidence of a departmental screw-up that forced Northlanders to stay at home for 11-days in October last year.
At that time, then-Covid Minister Chris Hipkins told the country that two women had provided fake information to obtain travel documents to get into the region.
But, as it turns out, there was no fraud – just a mistake.
In an October 5th email, a Government official said they had had another look at the woman in question’s application and concluded: “it should have been declined (approved in error) - I will reopen the case and revoke it”.
The email signed off: “Sorry, my mistake”.
That official was the first, and last, representative from Government to utter that five-letter word in regards to this saga.
Three days after that email, Hipkins claimed the women had traveled from Auckland to Northland by providing “false information in order to get the document to travel across the border”.
It’s not clear what happened behind the scenes and why this information wasn’t passed on to Hipkins.
But after the comments were made, there was understandable outrage at the women.
The entire country had been sold a tale of a Thelma and Louise-esque escapade which resulted in close to 200,000 people being locked in their homes for 11 days.
And since then, the entire country was under the impression Northland was locked down because of fraud.
When responding to the official’s email about the error, Hipkins said it was a “clerical error” made by an official at the Ministry of Social Development, at the time.
So why is most of the country only learning about this now?
According to Hipkins: “It was a matter of record that a clerical error was admitted at the time”.
He told a reporter – who had asked if the women he accused of falsifying documents deserved an apology – that he “didn’t want to get into the ins and outs” of what happened.
“All of this was a matter of public record at the time,” Hipkins said.
But the only reference to the lockdown being caused by a “clerical error” appears to be midway through an interview Hipkins did with RNZ on October 13 – five days into the 11-day lockdown.
“There was a degree of error in the approval in the first place, and that was corrected, but obviously it was corrected after they had already travelled across the border,” he said in the interview.
That’s not a clear admission and it’s hardly the same platform he used to make the initial accusations.
New Zealanders were on tenterhooks for much of 2021 – at any moment news could break that any given city was going into lockdown.
It’s fair to say Hipkins had the whole country’s attention that night – as it braced for the inevitable bad news.
Mentioning a “degree of error” in one media interview is a world away from using the Beehive podium to tell hundreds of thousands of people that Northland was locked down because travel documents were obtained via fraud.
One of the women at the centre of the bureaucratic blunder says Hipkins needs to say sorry.
“They owe the country an apology and an explanation as to why this whole ordeal was not transparent, and full of misinformation that not only affected us and our families - but the people of this country as well.”
It’s hard to disagree.
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