The need for more staff may be one of the factors stymying the growth of MIQ, as more labour-intensive facilities step in to house infected people found in the community

The task handed to the MIQ system has become much bigger since the beginning of the current Delta outbreak.

Before New Zealand’s first case of Delta in the community, MIQ was largely for Kiwis coming home and migrants on their way to fill shortages in the job market.

Despite a handful of positive cases being diverted to the Jet Park isolation facility per day, the majority of people coming through the facility tested negative at each of their scheduled tests, and had to stay inside their prescribed hotel out of what the Government has repeatedly referred to as an “abundance of caution”.

It’s the same process pet owners – or rather, their pets – have always gone through in order to make the move to New Zealand. Any dog wandering the streets of Auckland or Christchurch that began its life further abroad than Australia had to spend almost six months in a quarantine facility before getting a taste of freedom. And that was before Covid made its debut.

But over the last three weeks, the MIQ system has made some drastic transitions, from a quarantine system protecting the border, to that plus the provision of Government-ordered isolation for members of the community unfortunate enough to return a positive test.

Nowadays, parts of the MIQ system are something closer to a hospital.

There are 736 people in facilities put aside to house positive Delta cases, across six hotels in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Half of these hotels and the vast majority of the available rooms are in Auckland, where two facilities have been converted in order to take in the sick.

Joint head of MIQ Brigadier Rose King said the main role of MIQ is to keep New Zealand safe, rather than just manage the border.

“MIQ’s primary job is to keep New Zealand safe during the pandemic, and it has done this while enabling more than 170,000 people to enter New Zealand,” said King. “More recently, as a result of the Delta community outbreak, that work has been extended to accommodating positive community cases and their close contacts who are unable to safely isolate at home.”

But making the change to accommodating members of the community isn’t just a case of flicking a switch. Facilities for the sick require extra staffing to cope with the increased safety measures inside, as well as the potential for greater challenges when it comes to the pastoral care of guests.

“Unlike people returning to New Zealand who have made a choice to do so and had time to mentally prepare for being in managed isolation, community cases and close contacts are having to adjust to MIQ at short notice,” said King. “As a result, they can sometimes require more care and additional services.”

This has been seen with cases such as last week’s escapee from the Novotel & Ibis in Ellerslie, and the woman who had a verbal confrontation with staff in that same hotel’s lobby, putting staff members at risk.

“It’s very different to have someone who’s knowing they are going to come into a facility for a number of weeks versus someone who gets information sometimes only hours before that they need to come into quarantine,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday. “They’re also grappling with the fact that they have Covid-19, and they’re likely having to bring their family with them. It’s a very stressful and difficult environment with very little room for error.”

King said the operation of quarantine facility includes a more complicated approach to infection prevention and control – meaning more hands are needed on deck.

“There is greater staffing resource at a quarantine facility compared with a managed isolation facility, due to a quarantine facility’s additional complexities relating to operations and infection prevention and control,” she said.

The amount of extra staff needed when a facility undergoes the transition to serving those in the community depends on how long it has been used for quarantine, how many rooms are in use, and how many people are staying there.

These staff are divided between security, healthcare and administration, with security contracted from a combination of police, the New Zealand Defence Force, MBIE-contracted security officers, and private security. The health team is staffed by workers contracted in partnership with local DHBs, which provide healthcare management and services across the country’s 31 facilities.

There are a lot of moving parts within the MIQ system – and a lot of jobs to do within any given facility.

Even more so now that a number of the facilities house infected members of the community.

There are 691 rooms in the MIQ system that have been set aside especially for quarantining infected members of the community – around 90 percent of which are in Auckland.

Source: MBIE

King said 27 extra staff were hired in order to transition one facility from managed isolation to quarantine. This group of new workers included 18 additions to the security team and nine health workers.

She said the amount of workers in MIQ at the moment were in line with the usual numbers – around 4500 people working across the 31 facilities.

Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins has previously blamed the plight of Kiwis stuck overseas on the limited supply of the MIQ system.

There have always been a finite amount of rooms and challenges attached to scaling up the system. A big part of this is staffing new facilities, so as newly-established quarantine facilities require more staff to fill them, plans for a larger MIQ system that can get everyone who wants to come home back in the country are put on the back-burner.

Speaking on Thursday, Ardern said the arrival of the Delta variant on our shores shouldn’t necessarily affect capacity within MIQ, but admitted reducing numbers into the system was one of the most effective ways to reduce risk, along with other approaches such as cohorting.

King said rather than staffing requirements, the current pause of Managed Isolation Allocation System (MIAS) vouchers was the result of making space for hundreds of community cases – as well as people from Afghanistan.

“This has meant we have needed to reassess our capacity and ability to release MIAS vouchers for general returnees,” she said. “We are constantly looking at this and when we can restart releasing vouchers on MIAS.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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