Covid 19 Delta Outbreak: Grieving aunt told she would be arrested if she attended niece’s funeral

An Auckland family who were allowed to cross the city’s southern checkpoint by a “compassionate police officer” were later told they would be arrested if they attended their niece’s funeral.

The woman and two others were forced to watch the funeral via livestream from a house just minutes away from the funeral home, leaving her sister-in-law and other niece to struggle through the farewell without any family by their side.

“We were all in tears and sobbing and absolutely distraught because it’s just so senseless and it just seems so cruel,” she told the Herald.

Their 22-year-old niece was killed in a car crash two weeks ago and her funeral was held in Palmerston North last Thursday.

Two days after the crash, the woman’s body was returned to the family home and her sibling called her aunt in Auckland asking for help because her mother was sitting over the casket and could not be convinced to move away.

The Auckland family, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, had also been rocked by the sudden death and knew they needed to be in Palmerston North to support the family because they were worried for their safety.

The family tried everything they possibly could to get an exemption to leave Auckland during Covid alert level 4, but it was denied.

They even appealed to the Ombudsman but were told there was nothing he could do because it was a Ministry of Health decision.

The Auckland woman felt her niece and sister in law were “at risk” after the sudden death.

“We are their only family in New Zealand, so our grounds to leaving were, we felt, critical and an essential emergency.”

In the process of trying to gain approval to travel out of Auckland during alert level 4 the family got a letter of support from Auckland MP Chloe Swarbrick while Palmerston North MP Tangi Utikere said he would do what he could to help.

On calling the police 105 number she was told to head to the border with all the evidence she had and see what happened.

When they arrived at a checkpoint the family were granted travel and arrived at their family’s home in Palmerston North early on Saturday morning.

“The police officer at the border was very kind and compassionate and understood,” she said.

But on Saturday night police came to the house after they received a complaint there were Aucklanders there who had breached Covid travel restrictions.

However, once they explained the situation and told them police had allowed them to cross the checkpoint the officers apologised and left.

In the following days police visited the house again after a complaint was made that the family were not abiding by alert level 4 rules.

Again, the family explained the situation and said they had not left the house. Again police apologised and left.

They were also contacted by public health officials on Wednesday who arranged for them to have rapid day 5 testing which came back negative.

The woman said she finally felt like they were able to be there for the family and grieve the loss of her niece but that afternoon police visited again and said, that by Ministry of Health order, they would be arrested if they were to attended the funeral because they had not received an exemption.

“They said if we even put our feet on the property of the funeral home we will be arrested,” she said.

“We’re law-abiding citizens. We’re not going to turn up if we’re going to be arrested. It’s my niece’s farewell, we don’t want to overshadow that.”

The family called the Ministry of Health a number of times but were frustrated they were never able to explain their situation to anyone.

“I can’t believe there is no mercy and there is no human we can speak to in the Ministry who is a decision-maker, we can’t get our voices heard,” she said.

“All we want is someone to say I’m a decision-maker and I’m saying yes or no, we actually want the opportunity to speak our truth and be heard and understood.”

She said the family had been exceptionally careful during lockdown in Auckland and would have done anything asked of them by the Ministry in order to gain an exemption.

“People can get on a plane and say they’re going for work, and go skiing or go on holiday and get away with it, and this is not that,” she said.

“My family, they have lost their sister and daughter, and they just need us to hold them up.

“It is very clear if we weren’t here they would not have coped.”

The woman said she was speaking out because she believed the Ministry of Health process was wrong and there was no way for people to be heard in exceptional circumstances.

She said it was her hope that by highlighting the issue, no other families would find themselves in the same situation.

“I guess they were worried about setting a precedent for other New Zealanders … but at the same time we had honestly jumped through hoops and in the end my sister-in-law and my niece had to be supported by friends and colleagues when they went to the funeral because we couldn’t be there for them.

“That was incredibly frustrating and it just seemed so cruel.”

On Friday afternoon police contacted the family and told them the Ministry of Health had advised they could no longer stay in Palmerston North and they needed to go back to Auckland.

The family returned home to Auckland on Saturday, and police checked they were home.

“No one actually dealt with us with any sensitivity or kindness through the Ministry of Health whatsoever.

“The way our application was handled is going to continue to force people to find other unapproved ways of supporting their family and that’s why … the Ministry of Health needs to review it’s processes.”

A police media spokeswoman said they were unable to respond to queries about named individuals for privacy reasons.

She said people were only allowed to travel across the Auckland/Waikato boundary if that travel was permitted. Personal travel across the boundary was strictly limited and outlined in the Health Order.

Police were aware of a small number of people who had travelled across the boundary for reasons not permitted and these were being investigated, she said.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson confirmed travel between alert levels to attend funerals or tangihanga was not permitted.

“We appreciate this can be very distressing for some people, including those wanting to attend funerals/tangihanga, but the highly transmissible Delta variant means strong precautions are necessary.”

Exemptions are only granted in the most exceptional circumstances, on a case-by-case basis.

Only 213 personal travel exemption applications had been approved by Friday, with 3572 declined.

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