Government-run MIQ facilities are heading towards full capacity as Kiwis return home over Christmas – with anger from some travellers and pressure on politicians, what is the best way forward?

With the rest of the world on fire, New Zealand’s appeal to Kiwi expats isn’t hard to understand.

Add in the lure of a summer Christmas with family, and it’s little surprise the Government’s managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities are struggling to cope with demand for those who need to complete a 14-day stay before they can roam around the country.

A new voucher scheme for the MIQ system came into effect at the start of November to help allocate the scarce spaces to returnees, with a voucher for a specific entry date required to board any international flight here.

While government officials launched a publicity scheme for the voucher system in September, a number of prospective travellers say they have been caught unawares – including some who booked their flights well before the scheme had even been mooted.

Kiwi journalist Candida Beveridge said her 80-year-old mother had booked a flight from the UK to New Zealand in the first half of 2020, keen to visit her daughter after being in London lockdown by herself.

However, neither her airline nor travel agent had informed her about the need to secure a voucher, with Beveridge only becoming aware of the requirement this week and unsuccessfully trying to secure a booking for the correct date.

“She’s already quite stressed about flying on a flight, it’s dangerous coming on any flight at the moment, and then being put in isolation, she’s also worried about that, because she’s a bit claustrophobic … so this is just really stressful.”

Candida Beveridge (left) says her 80-year-old mother has been stressed by the uncertainty surrounding her arrival into New Zealand and access to an MIQ facility. Photo: Supplied.

Beveridge had booked a spot for December 15, the earliest date possible, but was still unsure as to whether her mother could change her flight to arrive on that day.

The Government seemed to have turned the MIQ facilities into a “lottery” instead of doing more to increase capacity, she said.

“I feel really worried about my mum and … desperately disappointed: Christmas comes once a year, and she’s going to be sitting by herself in a hotel room while all our family are getting together.”

In a Thursday speech to BusinessNZ outlining the Government’s priorities for the rest of the year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the difficulties some faced in securing an MIQ spot for the holidays.

“We want to find a balance here between bringing in more workers essential to our economic recovery and ensuring there is space for New Zealanders wanting to return home to do so – and I should note that as you can imagine, demand is high and at some points, at capacity in the lead up to Christmas. Kiwis understandably want to come home,” Ardern said.

Forward planning for arrivals to New Zealand had been difficult under the circumstances of the pandemic, and the voucher system allowed government officials to plan ahead, match demand and capacity, and implement a quota system for essential workers to enter the country.

Ardern said she understood the call for extra capacity from the private sector and elsewhere, and was “certainly not arguing that the only ones capable of managing a facility is a government agency”.

However, the biggest risk to New Zealand’s Covid-free position came at the border, and the requirements for any MIQ facility included the allocation of limited numbers of health staff and low enforcement.

“Every health worker we remove from the system, places pressure elsewhere, so let’s keep the conversation on our borders going, but while remembering that they are key to our success,” the Prime Minister said.

“There’s no shortage of examples of standards not being met in the Government’s operation and yet it’s the worst of all worlds, because there’s also many opportunities to increase capacity in a safe way that have been missed due to their insistence on operating it themselves.”

But ACT leader David Seymour, one of the most persistent critics of the Government’s Covid-19 response, told Newsroom Ardern and her officials had focused too much on running the facilities and not enough on upholding the necessary public health and other standards.

“There’s no shortage of examples of standards not being met in the Government’s operation and yet it’s the worst of all worlds, because there’s also many opportunities to increase capacity in a safe way that have been missed due to their insistence on operating it themselves.”

Seymour said clearer standards would allow officials to create different levels of MIQ requirement based on the risk level of a traveller’s country of origin and the nature of their occupation.

High-risk arrivals, like gang members from Australia, could go into state-run facilities, while RSE workers from the largely Covid-free Pacific could go to lower-risk, privately-run places which would still be subject to government checks and oversight.

Seymour also believed a more effective digital tracing solution would assist with changes to MIQ operations, as the low usage rates for the Covid Tracer app did not provide much confidence in the ability to contain any outbreak.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which oversees the MIQ facilities, said it had done “everything possible” to ensure travellers knew of the need to book a space.

People from 100 different countries had accessed the allocation system website in the last month, while 95 percent of passengers had arrived with a voucher since the publicity campaign began on September 25.

MBIE had also worked with multiple government agencies, travel agents, sector bodies and others who provided advice to travellers, the spokesman said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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