Auckland residents trying to get home were stopped from entering their flight after a misunderstanding about last night's rule change. Photo: Supplied

Air New Zealand and people hoping to fly back into Auckland on Friday morning were blindsided – and stranded – by a new rule that came in at midnight Thursday night

After six weeks down in Queenstown waiting out Auckland’s lockdown, it was finally time for John Gosney to come home.

He booked his tickets and checked what he needed to re-enter Level 3. The official Covid website told him that proof of the home address he’d be returning to would suffice – no evidence of a recent test needed.

He didn’t question this – it makes sense. He’d be travelling from Covid-free Queenstown back into Level 3 Auckland. Unlike essential freight workers criss-crossing the border, once he’s in, he’s in.

He showed up bright and early to get his flight, checked in and got his boarding pass with no problems. Everything seemed to be in order until he reached security screening, where airport staff told him he wouldn’t be seeing Auckland on Friday.

A rule change brought in largely unremarked upon at midnight Thursday night meant Gosney and every other passenger trying to get to Auckland were stopped from getting on the plane – even though the rules didn’t apply to everyone. 

Those new rules require certain people travelling across the alert level boundary to produce a test, including those returning home after a stay in hospital or prison, or on the way out of the country.

According to the site, Gosney didn’t need a test at all, but with both police and airport security blindsided by the sudden new rule, nobody was sure enough to let the Auckland-bound passengers on the plane. The flight was delayed while luggage was removed from the hold, and the passengers were left with their wings clipped.

John Gosney’s reunion with his wife and child was postponed by a sudden and ambiguous rule change. Photo: Supplied

Gosney said while he’s lucky enough to have a family home to go back to in Queenstown, other people were relying on getting on that plane.

“There were people in tears. There was a couple who were beside themselves.” he said. “One young guy there had nowhere to go after spending his money on the airfare.”

Air New Zealand was quick to step in and arrange flights for later, but it remains a head scratcher as to why the rule was rushed in so quickly and with no fanfare.

“Don’t they usually give even 24 hours’ notice?” He asked. “At no point during the booking process was I advised that you needed to have a Covid test to travel into Level 3 Auckland. You can’t keep making up the rules as you go without allowing the public time to make the necessary changes.”

There was no mention of this change during the Thursday Covid briefing, nor direct communication with Air New Zealand, whose staff were oblivious of the requirement when Gosney checked in early this morning.

And – in what could be seen as even more absurd – most of the people barred from the flight were within the rules.

According to the official boundary-crossing testing requirements, people going to their main home from lert Level 2 to lert Level 3 do not need to provide evidence of a test.

But amidst the confusion at the airport gate on Friday morning, this concession was overlooked.

Darryl Carpenter, Ministry of Health group manager of COVID-19 immunisation, testing and supply, said the ministry and other government agencies endeavoured to provide clear advice to the public on the requirements for permitted travel and testing, though acknowledge that in some instances its communications could be clearer.

“Our understanding of Covid-19 – and the role of transmission – has grown over the course of the pandemic,” he said. “As part of our continuous improvement approach, and in response to emerging evidence around the risks of Covid-19 – both from the international literature and our own insights – our border controls, such as the Auckland boundary, undergo ongoing review and strengthening.”

Police said the issue had been resolved mid-morning, so other passengers weren’t turned around on the only other flight leaving Queenstown today.

“It must be very frustrating for frontline staff that they don’t have clear rules to follow,” said Gosney. He received an apology from the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s office and is booked to go home on Sunday. However, he still wanted to know how the communication mix-up happened and why the rules had come into being.

He wondered why people need a Covid check to enter Auckland from the Covid-free South. “Where’s the common sense? What are they trying to stop?”

Carpenter said the requirement of a test added an extra layer of assurance to the protection of the differing alert levels.

“The requirement for a negative test prior to travel for people travelling out of the alert Level 3 area for personal reasons provides assurance that individuals are not transmitting Covid-19 to parts of the country with lower alert levels.”

However, he acknowledged people travelling into the Level 3 area carried less risk.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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