Heather Roy

6 August 2021

New Zealand’s MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) is a shambles and I have a solution to propose.  Hand MIQ over to the airlines.

Imagine this. You are a New Zealand citizen or resident and want to come home. Perhaps because there is an emergency situation in your family or a loved one has died. Maybe it’s just time to return while the pandemic continues to ravage the world. You go to the airline website and book a flight AND an MIQ place at the same time. It’s a package deal. (BOOM, done! as my kids would say). A utopian dream or could this really be possible?

The reality is far from the scenario just described. For those who haven’t had to walk the MIQ booking tightrope it goes something like this. Travellers need to decide whether to book a flight first or book an MIQ slot. Neither is of any use without the other so there’s a chicken and egg dilemma. MIQ places are much harder to get than flights so most travellers book several places on the MIQ website with the intention of cancelling those not needed later. Then the search for a flight begins – travellers need to find one that arrives on the same date matching an MIQ booking arrival. This can take hours online. MBIE isn’t sympathetic to the matching problem, merely commenting new dates are released frequently. True, but irrelevant as new booking dates are often snapped up in seconds. Those not lucky enough to be online at the right moment miss out. It’s not uncommon for the website to crash and travellers can be penalised for booking too many MIQ places. One woman told me she had been banned from the website for a period because she had booked too many slots while she searched for a flight, unable to find any that landed on the same day as places she had reserved. In short it is a very bad video game of ‘Speed Dating Roulette’.

Daily there are heart-wrenching stories of kiwis unable to book MIQ places despite heroic efforts to do so. Many New Zealanders abroad feel they have been abandoned with an MIQ booking system that is broken, is fully booked for months ahead and when limited spaces do become available these are taken in seconds. A very frustrated group of kiwis living overseas launched The Grounded Kiwis Petition  a few days ago. It asks:

That the House of Representatives urge the Government to change MIQ to create an equitable booking system, increase capacity, and consider alternatives to 14-day MIQ requirement for vaccinated returnees, to enable all Kiwis to return, consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

When our borders closed last year the government gave the job of isolation and quarantine to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). MBIE is a mainly policy Ministry so right from the start the ability to run such a huge operation well was questionable. MIQ became a business group within MBIE in July 2020 and currently is jointly led by Deputy Secretary Megan Main and Brigadier Rose King (NZ Army) who is Head of MIQ Operations.

MBIE describes MIQ as a “complex system of accommodation facilities, personnel, information systems, and testing regimes that enable positive COVID-19 cases to be detected early after arrival to New Zealand and to be isolated from the community.”

That might be complex for MBIE but for a business like Air New Zealand it is bread and butter. If they don’t get these things right the planes don’t fly. The skills and experience needed are those of logistics. Yes, the defence force understands and knows logistics well and this is part of the reason they have been dragged in to run the MIQ facilities. So too do many successful businesses operating supply chains and our national carrier. They also have the expertise to up-scale and down-scale as necessary.

The logistics of flights, accommodation, personnel, information systems, testing regimes – who better than the airlines flying into the country to provide a one-stop quality service that works? The government should have given oversight to MBIE and contracted the airlines to run the MIQ show. Air New Zealand had to lay off thousands of staff who had the necessary skills and experience needed and already had good relationships with hotels. If it’s majority shareholder (52% government owned) had thought harder it could have averted redundancies and not been required to prop up the company financially to the same extent – in March 2020 government offered a loan of up to $900 million with the ability to turn the loan into shares. A government prop-up in effect.

The airlines could have hired some of the thousands of travel agents who suddenly found themselves out of business. They were ideally placed to book flight and accommodation packages and understand travel requirements. Some Air New Zealand staff who have been made redundant could have been offered jobs in MIQ hotels.  But instead the government’s first thought was to give border control to it’s own Ministry, rather than looking to other sectors who already had the expertise.

I also object to the Defence Force being required by government to continue staffing MIQ facilities. Asking the army to step up as a first responder is reasonable, but there is no exit strategy for the Defence Force. This is inappropriate for many reasons. While soldiers work as highly paid hotel security guards (paid about twice as much) they are not training or working in their core roles. Government is taking this military workforce for granted and running down further an important national security agency already in neglect. These are jobs for security guards. Surely with 27,000 security guards in New Zealand there must be a couple of thousand who could effectively do this work.

It has also been noted in a Ministry commissioned report the constantly changing rotations of military personnel means there is a loss of accumulated knowledge at MIQ facilities and danger of a chink in MIQs armour. Recent revelations by NZDF also show the constant tours of MIQ are crippling many military families. NZDF acknowledged the MIQ role was having a significant impact on the psychological health and well-being of troops and their families.

These factors combined point to the need for a much better MIQ experience for all involved – those required to stay in MIQ and workers – and for the security of New Zealand from COVID threats. Cabinet should be handing over MIQ to those who have the experience to run the facilities well. The airlines are my top choice because they understand and deliver quality logistics every day. They know the importance of providing a quality service because they depend on customer loyalty. To survive, airlines have to be innovative and flexible in their approach. This is just what we need in a rapidly changing COVID environment.

There is no need for the MIQ experience to be traumatic or chaotic. The government has staked their reputation on a  COVID-free New Zealand to the exclusion of all else, and in so doing has lost sight of care and compassion for kiwis who have the right to enter their county. Where has the Prime Minister’s kindness gone?