Te Pāti Māori leads successful opposition to plans for new Covid quarantine facilities in poorly-vaccinated Rotorua Lakes district

The good luck needed to land a room in MIQ has long been blamed by the Government on demand versus supply.

Responding to allegations back in July that the difficulty travellers have had in locking down a room points to faults in the booking system, joint head of MIQ Megan Main said the logjam was more a problem with supply failing to meet demand than something wrong with the system itself.

At the time, she indicated the Government was looking for a solution. However, as the country’s fleet of 31 facilities has not expanded in the time since, it seems issues with securing a workforce or MIQ contracts with new hotels have reduced that list of options.

That’s about to change, with The Quality Hotel Elms in Christchurch soon to come onboard as the next MIQ facility.

This decision comes after earlier signalling the Government was looking at putting a new facility in Rotorua – an idea met with unified backlash from local iwi and council.

“Due to ongoing high demand for MIQ space, MBIE is investigating potentially bringing additional facilities online,” Main said earlier this week.

This is the first big change to New Zealand’s network of MIQ facilities since the Novotel & Ibis Ellerslie and the Holiday Inn by Auckland Airport were converted into quarantine facilities, specifically aimed at housing positive cases from the community.

The Quality Hotel Elms will be the seventh MIQ facility in Christchurch. Photo: David Williams

It also shows the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which oversees the MIQ programme, continues to look at hotels as the best place for facilities – despite advice from some of the country’s top public health experts.

University of Otago epidemiologists Dr Michael Baker and Dr Nick Wilson have been calling for a shift to dedicated isolation facilities, as has been seen across the ditch in Australia.

They argue retrofitting hotels into quarantine facilities is difficult to get right, especially with the Delta variant being more easily transmitted through the air of shared indoor spaces.

With renovations of ventilation systems in hotels used for MIQ around the country, MBIE has tried to address the issue. However, it is harder to alter the physical layout of the buildings themselves – which were not designed with the idea of keeping people separated – and could still provide the right conditions for the virus to hang around in an aerosol.

This was seen across the instances of transmission within facilities across the last few months – from the virus making it across a hallway in Jet Park, to its daring escape from a room in the Crowne Plaza where it managed to infect the family next door to a recent returnee from New South Wales.

To some, it raises the question – why more hotels?

And the people of Rotorua, who could feel the eye of MBIE surveying them from afar, were ready to say no more.

Te Pāti Māori launched a campaign in opposition to the potential establishment of new facilities in Rotorua, saying local people are united in their disdain for the idea and the Government needs to listen to them.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi claimed this week to have sources indicating plans for two more facilities in Rotorua, with one of them potentially being a dedicated quarantine facility.

He worried about the increased risk to Rotorua and the surrounding region, where being the epicentre of another outbreak would overwhelm the local healthcare system and jeopardise the safety of already-vulnerable communities.

“What our people need to understand, is the difference between isolation and quarantine,” he said. While at the moment, three isolation facilities are located in Rotorua – the Rydges, the Ibis and the Sudima – these are strictly for incoming travellers. People who test positive in any of these hotels are put on a shuttle to Auckland.

A quarantine facility for positive cases in Rotorua would mean the presence of infected people, and potentially even those being bussed down from Auckland if capacity in the city is strained.

Rawiri Waititi was a vocal opponent of the plans to establish new MIQ facilities in Rotorua. Photo: Katene Durie

“The addition of a quarantine facility in Rotorua keeps and brings those infectious to our community,” Waititi said. “This only increases the potential for a MIQ breach leading to a community outbreak. It adds more pressure on the local health system and ultimately means more lockdowns. This would be disastrous for Rotorua, and especially Māori, who make up 45 percent of the Rotorua population.”

He cautioned that a predisposition to poorer health outcomes and lower Māori vaccination rates as provided by Lakes DHB put the area in a particularly exposed position.

“Lakes DHB has the poorest delivery in equitable vaccination rates for Māori in Aotearoa,” he said. “For every five non-Māori vaccinated among the 20-34 group, only two Māori are being vaccinated. This rate is atrocious but only further justifies why additional MIQ facilities cannot be welcomed in Rotorua.”

The Lakes DHB in turn made it clear that another MIQ facility in Rotorua would put pressure on the capacity to deliver healthcare, negatively impacting hospital facilities and staff, at a cost to Rotorua denizens who could miss out on healthcare services.

Waititi also had concerns about the economic impact of more MIQ in Rotorua, suggesting another MIQ hotel would lengthen the time it would take to rebuild the tourism sector. With fewer hotels ready to go, there could be fewer tourists to grease the wheels of the town’s economy.

The extended lockdown freezing Auckland in place is already having a dire effect on Rotorua given Aucklanders make up around 30 percent of spending across the town’s accommodation, food and beverage, retail and transport sectors.

“As well as the effect additional MIQ will have on the economic recovery of tourism, Te Arawa iwi have also been left out of the conversation,” Waititi said. “Ngāti Whakaue and Tūhourangi-Ngāti Wāhiao have both written strong letters in opposition of additional MIQ facilities, and I back them completely.”

In addition, Mayor Steve Chadwick has advocated against any further MIQ in Rotorua, saying the council was informed rather than asked by the Government.

Waititi said the petition was not about throwing a wrench in the gears of the MIQ system as a whole.

“This is not about stopping MIQ and we understand the urgency at which whānau overseas want and need to return to Aotearoa,” he said. “But the Government need to look at investing in the infrastructure to support this effort. If it means building purpose-built facilities or upgrades to Queenstown’s hospital – so be it.”

With this week’s first MIQ lobby opening to around more than 30,000 users (although people with duplicated accounts means the real number of people is likely lower), the demand is certainly there.

Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins said he personally had a conversation with Rotorua iwi last week and was willing to take their concerns into consideration.

“Ultimately, you do need a workforce to support it,” he told press on Wednesday.

However, he has gone on record saying Rotorua is potentially better suited than Queenstown for MIQ.

“There are a lot of complex issues that need to be considered for operating MIQ facilities,” he said last month. Some of these issues include workforce supply, suitability and number of hotels and their proximity to hospitals and transport hubs – which is why MBIE were looking into Rotorua as opposed to Queenstown.

“Rotorua is also within easy driving distance of Auckland International Airport, where the vast majority of returnees arrive into New Zealand,” said a MIQ spokesperson.

Now more recent arrivals will be loaded onto a second plane for the trip down to Christchurch.

The Quality Hotel Elms is in the process of being signed off, and will join six other MIQ facilities already located in the city.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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