15 Oct 2021

MIQ emergency process hurtful, illogical, underused, advocates say

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 15 October 2021

The emergency allocation system for MIQ has been described as hurtful and illogical, with fewer than 10 percent of applications being approved in some categories, numbers released under the Official Information Act show. 

There are 350 managed isolation rooms available each fortnight for time-critical travel, where a person is unlikely to get a spot in time through the online lobby system.

Categories include travelling for medical treatment, to care for the terminally ill, to look after a child or because of the death of a close family member. 

But advocacy group Grounded Kiwis says figures it has obtained suggest the rooms are being under-used.

New Zealand citizen James Skurupey had to get to the United States in a hurry for the death of a family member. He only managed to get an emergency allocation to return to Christchurch after five attempts.

"My stepfather called me around 2:45am, quite hysterical, to tell me that my mother had died in a car crash."

Skurupey made plans to get to Colorado as quick as possible.

"The one thing I found was, it's quite easy to get out of New Zealand. Now, getting back into New Zealand is a whole other question.

"I tried to apply for an application under 3b for emergency allocation… I think I accidentally put 3a.

"I found out that by the end of the day it was automatically kicked back, because if you don't fly within 14 days - if your date in the application of when you come back into New Zealand is not 14 days - it will be kicked back, no matter what."

He tried again under the 3b category, which waives the 14-day rule, based on one's situation.

"The problem was there were no flights that could get me to Colorado and have at least a week or even a few days to spend some time with my family, figure the Trust stuff out and be able to get a Covid test three days before my [return flight] within 14 days.

"I call up and tried to talk somebody. They're very sympathetic. Very nice. But the only people you can talk to are just people that listen to you. They can't direct you to anybody, they can't file a complaint."

Skurupey did file a complaint online and got a computer-generated response.

"The whole system is just sad. There's no excuse for not having somebody that you can actually talk to, that can actually look into the situation.

"New Zealand is a beautiful and awesome country, I love it. It's my adopted home. I plan on staying there for most of my life. And this really hurts. It didn't seem like a New Zealand thing to do."

'I was rejected for two reasons, neither of which made any sense' - psychiatrist

For Wellington psychiatrist Dr Sarah Romans the future is less certain.

She headed to Melbourne for the birth of her grandchild, but has been stuck there nearly three months after the trans-Tasman travel bubble closed.

Dr Romans has about 50 patients. Some she can see remotely, but prescribing medication from afar is complicated. She has had to refer some clients to other services but there is a shortage of psychiatrists. 

"I provide a consultation service in psychiatry, mostly supporting general practitioners with patients who've got anxiety, depression, drug abuse problems and psychosis.

"I've got a very long waiting list. People, although they have to pay, really want the services of psychiatrists outside the public health system."

She typically runs a 12-month waiting list, she told Checkpoint.

While Dr Romans has been stuck in Melbourne, two of her patients have had crises which she could not be there to help them through.

"It's quite worrying… normally when I'm in Wellington my people can contact me quickly with a phone call or an email and I can respond.

"I thought I would be an obvious candidate as providing a 'time critical health and disability service'. So I applied under that category, outlined my situation and the kind of work I do.

"But I was rejected for two reasons, neither of which made any sense to me.

"One was that I didn't provide an employee. But I'd explained in my application, I'm self employed.

"I gave some thought to alternative documentation and provided two relevant letters from people that knew my work.

"The other argument was that I wasn't setting up a new practice… That's not outlined in the criteria as I read them online."

She has tried for a regular MIQ spot in the four online lobbies, but has not come close to getting a voucher there.

Dr Romans lives alone. She said she was advised by the Ministry of Health to apply for the home self-isolation trial, but she is not eligible as she lives in Wellington. The trial is only operating in Auckland and Christchurch. 

Checkpoint asked MBIE for an interview. It said no-one was available. Instead it sent a link to its webpage for emergency allocation requests, with details of who could apply, when and how.

The page says that meeting the criteria does not guarantee a room, and some application categories are prioritised over others.

'You can imagine the stress this causes families' - Grounded Kiwis

Advocacy group Grounded Kiwis told Checkpoint the MIQ emergency allocation system demands unrealistic levels of evidence, and fewer than 10 percent of applications are approved in some categories.

Spokesperson Martin Newell said figures it has obtained under the Official Information Act from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment suggest emergency spots are being left empty, despite hundreds of applications.

MBIE said it counts application numbers rather than individuals involved.

"From the data we've received from MBIE… there were a total of 1550 rooms based on the allocation 350 a fortnight," Newell told Checkpoint.

"Over July and August, only 772 applications were approved out of a total of 3500."

He said essentially an applicants chances of getting a allocation are about one in five.

One of the most surprising details in the information was that only 5 percent of applications had been approved under the category for NZ citizens or residents unable to legally remain in their current location with no option to return home.

"So if you've been working somewhere, you've perhaps lost your job in the pandemic, and you need to return to New Zealand, you are unable to do so.

"And one of the challenges with that particular category that we've been hearing repeatedly is that [MBIE] is requiring people to get a letter from the country they're in, stating that they have no right to reside there, before they can come home.

"In a lot of cases they're being laughed, literally out of government offices because they don't provide such information.

"The most successful category is category 2f, where 80 percent of all applications have been approved. The total number of applications is only 55 and what was approved is 44.

"That's residents of Pacific countries that need access to time-critical medical treatment that's been scheduled in New Zealand and unavailable in their own country.

"Category 1a had 897 applications between July 1 and September 6. Only 129 were approved.

"So it was the largest number of applications for a single category, with a 14 percent approval rate.

"The stories that we're hearing about a lot of the applicants in that scenario is that if there is a parent in the country, they are refusing the application because they are saying there is already a parent that can care for that dependent.

"You can imagine the stress this causes families, for the parent that is stuck away from their child."

He said there have been other instances where a biological parent is in New Zealand but is not the legal guardian of the child, but MBIE has deemed that person is sufficient to take care of the child.

"So that child's effectively being passed into the care of someone that they've not been historically looked after [by]."

The burden of supplying an extensive amount of evidence is holding a lot of would-be applicants back from trying to get an emergency allocation, Newell said.

"We've had examples of where MBIE is asking applicants to… get a letter from their [local] embassy, saying that they have a mental illness.

"I'm not an expert on the qualifications of MFAT staff… but they're not psychiatrists and doctors, and qualified to give that kind of a medical opinion."

In many applications for emergency places, MBIE is responding to people after 10 days and asking for more information, Newell said.

"They're pushing out the timeline to approve what are some quite time-sensitive requests."