With the trans-Tasman bubble set to open next week, 500 MIQ rooms will be kept unused in case of an Australian outbreak. Will this be enough? Matthew Scott investigates

The first flights from across the ditch touch down on Monday. They represent New Zealand’s first go at widening the bubble we have all lived in for the past year.

For Kiwis stranded in Australia and local tourism operators, this has been a long time coming. But, for the first time, our protection from the virus may hinge on the actions of another government.

So what is the plan for if things go wrong in Australia?

Our Government has set aside 500 rooms in MIQ facilities for use in the event of the virus getting out of control there – however, Government officials remain unsure of what they would require travellers caught by a paused or suspended bubble to do.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins called the 500 room contingency a “sensible and prudent risk management approach, to protect New Zealanders”.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, however, said while other options were being explored in the event of a bubble break, it was up to individual Kiwis to take responsibility for the potential risks inherent in travelling across the Tasman.

“It’s the traveller’s responsibility to prepare for and be able to manage any disruption to quarantine-free travel,” said an MBIE spokesperson. “Including the possibility… that they be required to enter MIQ on their return.”

But would the 500 MIQ rooms set aside for this situation be enough?

Since New Zealand borders closed, almost 75,000 Australian residents have entered the country via MIQ, using around 1000 MIQ rooms a month.

The change coming in now, with the travel bubble, frees up those rooms for MIQ use from other countries – although MBIE reports “setting aside 500 rooms will decrease the overall MIQ operational capacity from approximately 4,500 rooms a fortnight to 4,000 rooms a fortnight.”

The Government has also signalled it could shut down some lesser-used facilities.

All going according to plan, there will be more than enough spaces in MIQ to keep up with need.

If the bubble bursts, there could be a problem.

If travellers from Australia (including returning Kiwis) need to go into MIQ, demand for rooms will spike in a system that has deliberately reduced its capacity.

Whether or not travellers will need to go through MIQ is still unclear, according to Government messaging, which says this may occur in both pause and suspend modes.

With trans-Tasman travel suddenly available without the need for MIQ, arrivals from Australia will soar – not just from Aussies on their way to holiday in New Zealand, but also from Kiwis on their way home.

Widespread community transmission in Australia would cause the Government to pause or suspend the bubble, putting all of those ‘green zone’ travellers back into MIQ queues.

If things happen quickly, that 500 room capacity will be a chokepoint.

Hipkins said advice on how the rooms would be used is still being worked on. “It’s expected to be with the Government in the next two weeks,” he said on April 7 – just twelve days before the bubble was to open.

When asked if cutting it fine to get clarity on that situation could present potential risks, the minister’s office said it was considering a range of scenarios.

“The plan will need to be flexible to deal with a wide range of events,” a spokesperson said. “Holding rooms in contingency is one tool, and there are others including isolating at home or in accommodation.”

The MBIE spokesperson said in the event of a pause or suspension in travel to and from Australia, responses such as asking people to self-isolate would be examined first.

“Those 500 rooms are not intended to be the primary response to such an event,” they said. “They would only be used if other responses were not appropriate.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called for ‘flyer beware’ last week when announcing the trans-Tasman bubble – insufficient back-up MIQ space could end up being one main reason for this caution.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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