Despite MBIE’s numbers showing plenty of space in MIQ, for returnees and travellers trying to get back into the country, using the booking system is like banging their head against a brick wall

A strategy for releasing MIQ rooms has been branded as arbitrary and anti-migrant by the people affected, with over 12,000 MIQ vouchers unused since the beginning of the year.

Despite only 2500 of the system’s 4000 rooms being currently allocated, travellers and New Zealand returnees are refreshing a booking screen over and over to the sight of nothing but greyed out unavailable dates.

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment explained this by saying a number of rooms are kept in reserve, to be dished out in tranches over the next few months.

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Joint head of MIQ Brigadier Rose King said there were still more rooms to be released for August, September and October, and advised people to keep checking the system. However, the MIQ site lists September, October and November as the months with tickets still to come.

The proportion of unused rooms in the MIQ system has increased markedly since the advent of the trans-Tasman bubble, even as operational capacity was reduced by 500 rooms – a contingency measure put in place in case Kiwis trapped in Australia need to return, as has happened following the New South Wales outbreak.

The ministry said the New Zealanders on managed return flights would go into MIQ, but will not make it harder for those from other countries already struggling to find a room.

“This is a separate emergency allocation for managed return flights and does not affect the allocation of MIQ vouchers assigned to travellers from other countries,” it said in a press release issued over the weekend.

“Each of those unused rooms represents a significant economic opportunity cost and an avoidable and unresolved human tragedy.”

However, with most of these returnees from Australia being housed in the 500 contingency rooms, the gulf between the number of rooms allocated and those available continues to raise questions.

Maths teacher Cameron Conradie has been split from his family since he arrived in New Zealand from South Africa in January of last year.

He’s taken a maths teacher’s approach to trying to understand why finding a room in MIQ is such an ordeal – collating and graphing MBIE’s daily reports of rooms allocated and operational capacity.

It’s a difference that shows an “utterly shambolic” system, he said.

By comparing the actual occupancies against the full advertised operational capacity, he has calculated that more than 12,000 room vouchers have not been used or issued since the beginning of the year.

“There seem to be ‘ghost’ rooms that are not released for booking,” he said.

“Each of those unused rooms represents a significant economic opportunity cost and an avoidable and unresolved human tragedy,” he said.

In addition, the first-in, first-served nature of the booking system has allowed for a range of tactics from those looking to score a room – some of which contribute further to the chaos.

“People make multiple speculative bookings, jamming up the system for everyone else,” Conradie said. “There are no deposits required, no penalties if a booked room is not used.”

Services trying to help people stuck without a room – or make a buck off them – have included Twitter accounts set to notify would-be MIQers of rooms for grabs and a private service people can pay handsomely to lock down a space.

Meanwhile, controversy has arisen over people using automated scripts to make sure they are front of the line.

Conradie believes the problem comes down to the ministry’s unwillingness to act. “Split families could have been accommodated during July and August of last year,” he said. Instead, “families remain cruelly split and businesses cannot access desperately-needed offshore skills”.

The site that meets would-be travellers and returnees on the MIQ booking system each day. Photo: MIQ website

Kiwi Sam Drew has been trying to get back from the United States to see his family for the first time in two years, but can’t get a space in MIQ.

He said the current allocation system subjects overseas Kiwis to cruel treatment.

“We basically have to spend hours constantly refreshing a screen and as soon as a spot appears and we attempt to click and claim, we are crushed with an ‘already taken’ notice,” he said.

With no visible availability on the website, he said most Kiwis abroad are themselves stuck until at least November. “This seems unethical and unlawful,” he said. “We are supposed to have freedom of movement to return to New Zealand as New Zealand citizens.”

Ultimately, Drew just wants to come home.

People have been unable to lock down rooms, despite 550 rooms recently being added back into the operational capacity of the MIQ system after maintenance was completed at the Grand Millennium and Grand Mercure facilities.

The ministry said it was gradually releasing the vouchers in batches in order to cater for people spread across the world. “People in different time zones have a fair opportunity to secure a voucher,” claims its website.

The controversy comes as MBIE this month marks its first anniversary of taking control of MIQ.

At the moment, it seems the only advice it is providing those stuck in MIQ booking limbo is to keep hitting refresh.

“Spaces in managed isolation are extremely limited,” read the MIQ website. “More may become available as travel plans change. We recommend you continue checking the managed isolation allocation system for your preferred date.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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