Analysis: The Government is gearing up to fund hotel rooms for thousands of returning Kiwis through the end of the year, at least, Marc Daalder reports

The Government currently expects quarantine rules at the border to remain in place through December, with capacity constraints contributing to an astronomically expensive system that stymies efforts to let in non-citizens for humanitarian or economic reasons.

Speaking at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated that the current ratio of economic exemptions to returning New Zealanders is likely to remain in place. Around 200 of the 20,000 people who have been funnelled through the managed isolation and quarantine system have been non-residents allowed in for economic reasons.

Even as the number of returnees continues to grow, with the Government expecting a 2 to 4 percent increase every fortnight, Ardern’s comments are likely to put the damper on businesses hoping for an influx of migrant workers anytime soon.

There are three restrictions on the number of people allowed in.

The first is the number of flights which, as the rest of the world begins to reopen without hope of eliminating the virus like New Zealand has, is beginning to increase. The addition of new international lines over the past couple of weeks has turned on the spigot for returning New Zealanders, forcing the new tag team of Housing Minister Megan Woods and Air Commodore Darryn Webb to urgently send a number of arrivals over the weekend to hotels in Rotorua, instead of Auckland.

The second obstacle is capacity. As it stands, New Zealand can take a few hundred people a day, so long as others continue to get discharged and not locked down due to new Covid-19 cases within the isolation facilities. That capacity is a focus of intense work on behalf of the Government, which expects to stand up new facilities in Wellington and expand existing operations in Auckland, Christchurch and now Rotorua.

Ardern said Monday that she didn’t expect other cities would be brought into the fold. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, meanwhile, said the Government could return to using camper vans to house returnees, as occurred in the early stages of the Covid-19 response when borders around the world began to close. Using the Whangaparaoa military camp, as with the evacuation flight out of Wuhan in February, was also an option, but not one Bloomfield thought likely to happen.

The last hurdle to letting in more people is cost, which is closely tied to capacity. As it stands, the Government expects to spend $298 million between June and December on the managed isolation operation. That figure could fluctuate heavily, however, if more or fewer people return than expected.

The cost could also be contingent on a co-payment scheme that the Government is considering, although Ardern cautioned that Cabinet has yet to make a final decision on whether people should be asked or required to pay for some of the costs of housing them for two weeks. Newsroom first reported last week on a pilot scheme where a group of foreigners granted exemptions paid their own way.

If returnees, whether resident or not, could defray some of the costs of the operation, more money could be put towards standing up new isolation facilities and, ultimately, letting in more people.

Then there’s another spanner in the works: Australia. As the economic situation worsens for our Tasman neighbour, there could be a massive influx in the number of New Zealanders wanting to cross back over the ditch. A million Kiwis live in Australia – if enough of them wanted to come home, the whole isolation system could find itself bursting at the seams.

Ardern and Woods say they are confident the country can handle any flood of returnees, pointing to the fact that the past month saw a doubling in the number of New Zealanders heading home and the Government still has head room of about 500 beds.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment