In response to gridlock on the MIQ room reservation system, the arrival of virtual lobbies next week leans more on chance than the users’ ability to wrangle an automated script

Since the establishment of the MIQ system, a few hundred rooms a fortnight have been up for grabs for the thousands of people trying to get into the country – either New Zealanders trying to get home after months out in the pandemic-ravaged world, or workers on their way to fill skill shortages.

Limited supply drove the battle to lock down a room to absurd extremes – third parties offering to click in users’ stead, automated scripts scrabbling for places at the head of the queue, and ad-hoc alert systems sending out notifications for the hopeful.

For the last few months, heightened demand for rooms has made getting one a herculean task – now made impossible by the Government’s decision to freeze voucher allocations during New Zealand’s Delta outbreak.

But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for those trying to get back to the country. Speaking today, Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins announced details of a new booking system set to debut on Monday, along with the thaw of the voucher freeze.

As the first rooms in a month become available, users will be rolling the dice instead of seeing who can click refresh the fastest.

The new system invites users to get online at any time between 8am and 9am (NZT) on Monday morning. When the clock strikes nine, users in the lobby will be sorted at random into a virtual queue. The first 3000 can expect to get a voucher for a room, which they can use until December. 

“The whole system is designed to improve the experience and level the playing field,” said Hipkins. However, he cautioned that it won’t solve the problem of demand exceeding supply.

“It isn’t a silver bullet,” he said. “We fully expect there to be more demand than there is supply of rooms.”

Following on from this, around 4000 rooms can be expected to be available per fortnight under the same booking system – although MIQ notes this doesn’t necessarily mean 4000 new rooms will be released every fortnight, as many rooms had already been allocated before the recent pause and some facilities may need maintenance.

The timing of future releases is still a work in progress, although a second batch of rooms is planned for release in September.

“We anticipate future releases will be done on a regular basis, however the number of rooms in each release may vary,” a spokesperson from MIQ said, noting that operational capacity is approximately 4000 rooms every 18 to 20 days.

Joint Head of MIQ, Megan Main, said the lobby system was being tested out to make booking more transparent.

“I know people spend many hours in front of their computers constantly refreshing in the hopes of securing a voucher. I know this lack of certainty has been really challenging for people,” she said. “The lobby means we can let people know in advance when room releases are happening.”

She emphasised that the new system is not first-in, first-served, as it doesn’t matter at what time users join the lobby in the hour before the release. 

“Once the room release starts, all of the people in the lobby will be automatically moved into a queue — this will be randomised, removing the need to be the fastest.”

But without any limit on the amount of people who can join the lobby, and an average daily user base of just under 20,000 at the beginning of last month, getting a room in the lottery may still be a tall order.

With Monday’s release of 3000 rooms, if 20,000 users are waiting in the lobby, almost five out of six will still come away disappointed.

Mike Moore has been grappling with the system for months, both as a travel reservation system consultant and a bereaved brother trying to get to family in the United Kingdom.

He’s not sure these announced changes will do much.

“I’m not hopeful that this will make much real difference, other than take away the endless hitting of refresh,” he said.

He wants to know exactly what the demand is, and if any weighting will be given to people who have been trying longer for a room.

Mike Moore doesn’t think the virtual lobby system will fix much more than users having to keep hitting refresh. Photo: Supplied

Hipkins Wednesday shot down a points system as suggested by National MP Maurice Williamson, which could potentially take into account the time-sensitivity and importance of travel, as well as how long a user has been trying to get a room without success.

He compared such an undertaking to the workings of the visa application process – labour-intensive and liable to take months before a decision is made.

“There’s a lot of complexity with a points system,” he said. “The burden of that would be significant … the nearest comparable example is people applying for visas. It takes months to process that. If we were going to do that for MIQ it may take a lot longer for people to access vouchers.”

Moore also pointed out difficulties with lining up connecting flights.

“It is also very difficult for people with connecting flights to identify the inbound flight number that they are now required to enter to even get into the lobby,” he said. “Now everyone needs to be a travel expert. Pity they don’t have any in the team designing this mess.”

He said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment had not answered his questions around plans for the system, such as who exactly was developing it and how suggestions could be submitted.

The Monday tranche of rooms will not be available to people trying to return home from Sydney, Hipkins said, although there were plans next week to figure out exactly how the Government plans to help people stuck in New South Wales.

“I don’t want them to feel that they are forgotten,” he said. “I acknowledge Covid-19 has caused disruption to a lot of people.”

He also hinted at the future of the MIQ system, saying that by early next year there is the potential for different requirements for the fully-vaccinated. However, he signalled that until the end of this year at least, users could expect the pressure on the system to remain high.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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