New Zealand’s three largest business groups are calling for the Government to relax the rules around who can move across Auckland borders, after being caught “completely by surprise” by news the Prime Minister had already ruled the changes would not be reviewed.

On Thursday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern caught even Beehive officials by surprise when she announced that when Cabinet considers whether to lower the alert level in Auckland on Monday, it will not even contemplate the removal of the borders to both the north and south of the city.

“At the moment, we do have control of the outbreak, but we do have an outbreak, so we will continue to assess the role of the boundary as we go,” Ardern said.

“But at the moment it is not one of the things I expect to be lifted on Monday.”

In a joint statement, the chief executives of Business NZ, the Auckland Business Chamber and the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) said closed borders were “not an option under reduced Auckland alert level”.

The groups proposed retaining the border but allowing freer movement across it, with appropriate testing and proof of double vaccination.

Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett said the city’s businesses were going to great lengths to try to operate safely.

“Our reward is to hear through a press conference that we’ll stay locked up. That is a devastating blow for many. It’s equally disappointing to hear that Monday’s announcement on alert levels and the border could be made with little no input or consultation from businesses and organisations in Auckland.”

Barnett said the current system where companies must apply for individual exemptions was no longer sustainable.

“Continuing to grant exemptions to cherry-picked sectors just isn’t an option any longer. The most likely outcome of that approach is encouraging non-compliance from those other sectors that miss out.”

EMA chief executive Brett O’Riley said making being fully vaccinated a requirement for crossing out of Auckland would create an incentive to get vaccinated. The movement could also be restricted to those with recent negative Covid-19 tests.

“It would also be a great incentive scheme to allow travel across the border in the school holidays if families could show proof of vaccination,” O’Riley said.

“What we’re hearing indicates the Ministry of Health has too much sway in what is being proposed with limited regard to the mental wellbeing of business owners and their workers, or the economic and community chaos the ongoing lockdowns will cause in the region and beyond.”

BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope said the impact of Aucklanders remaining stuck in the city would be felt across the country.

“Many businesses throughout the country in lower alert levels are still unable to operate at capacity because they can’t source critical materials, components, stock or people from Auckland,” Hope said.

“Having Aucklanders able to move around the region and the country is critical to the ongoing viability of many struggling businesses,” Hope said.

Ardern was unclear about what it would take to remove the Auckland border, beyond saying high vaccination rates were key to lowering restrictions.

“We want to get to a position when we can have movement again,” Ardern said. “It causes a huge amount of work for managing the boundary safely and also a huge amount of stress and anxiety for those who are separated.

“Of course, we want to get that movement back, but it needs to be safe.”