MIQ facilities have had military boots on the ground since almost the start of the pandemic, but the inefficiency of rotating personnel means civilians will soon replace them.

The soldiers sighted performing guard duty out the front of managed isolation facilities around the country may soon be replaced with civilian workers.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which is heading the operation of the MIQ system, has proposed to review security workforce numbers and Defence Force office support roles.

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Defence Force workers have been utilised by the Government in a range of situations since the advent of the pandemic, under the name Operation Protect – including supporting police checkpoints at the border of the Auckland region during instances of Level 3, and assisting the NZ customs service monitor ports last year.

However, the largest use of Defence personnel has been in the MIQ facilities, where over 10 percent of all active personnel have been put to work.

This is set to change after recommendations by a Ministry-commissioned report earlier this year, heralding a raft of changes to the evolving MIQ system as it passes the milestone of having temporarily housed 150,000 travellers.

The report strongly recommends reducing reliance on the Defence Force for staff, as time and training is lost to military staff’s constant rotations.

“The impact of Defence Force staff rotations [is] significant,” said the report, which was written by Murray Jack and Katherine Corich. “Significant time is devoted to induction, however, there is inevitably a loss of accumulated knowledge which impacts efficiency.”

Concerns were raised that the constant need to hand over roles within MIQ to new personnel could be a chink in MIQ’s armour.

“Handovers take time and there are risks that they are not sufficient,” the report said. “Rotation also makes it difficult to embed continual improvement.”

The Defence Force comprises 16 percent of all MIQ workers – the second-largest group after the original hotel staff, who comprise 40 percent.

Joint head of MIQ Brigadier Rose King said the shift was part of a wider move to put the MIQ system in a “steady state”.

She said following the recommendations of the report and other reviews, the system’s heavy reliance on Defence personnel was identified as a risk – especially those in key leadership roles.

“The rotational nature of deployment from Defence Force was identified as a key issue for quality, continuity and consistency,” she said.

Defence fills roles in four main areas in MIQ: security, day-to-day operations within each facility, and leadership roles across regional centres and the national office in Wellington.

King said due to the variety of agencies involved in the operation of MIQ, any further changes to these roles would only occur after discussion with the Defence Force and “with appropriate engagement with ministers and Cabinet”.

A Defence Force spokesperson said with 10 percent of its personnel working in MIQ, it had continued to honour international commitments and kept contingency forces for responses, but ongoing training had been affected.

“NZ Defence Force is maintaining overseas commitments and contingency forces for responses,” they said. “Ongoing training has been affected due to both the Covid-19 situation as well as commitments to Operation Protect.”

They suggested the civilianisation of MIQ roles could lead to this training getting back on track. “It is intended that any affected outputs would be regenerated if the Defence Force commitment to Operation Protect was to reduce.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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