24 Dec 2020

New Zealanders in UK beg to return as new Covid variants spread

6:34 pm on 24 December 2020

The rapid spread of new Covid-19 strains in the UK has some New Zealanders pleading with the government for help to get home.

Passengers wearing masks queue at Heathrow Airport in west London on December 21, 2020.

Passengers wearing masks queue at Heathrow Airport in west London on December 21, 2020. Photo: AFP / Niklas Halle'n

Meanwhile people here - including health experts - want the government to tighten the screws on its border controls.

One new highly infectious Covid-19 variant is spreading across Britain while another, imported from South Africa, is under investigation by experts.

A New Zealander in the UK, Ranko Berich, described the situation for fellow Kiwis as "hundreds of people in dire straits".

He has been trying to get home with his wife and two young children, having left his job and given notice on his flat, but they have found themselves in the thick of travel disruption.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled after Singapore and Hong Kong stopped allowing transits.

"We're effectively jobless and homeless and we have to sort of scramble to make alternative arrangements," he said.

"There are many people in a worse situation where they're struggling to find accommodation, they're worried about money and really they've just got no options."

The situation is made more complex by New Zealand's managed isolation booking system which is full for about 10 weeks.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment said people could keep their managed isolation bookings if they rebooked new flights on the same day as their cancelled ones.

It expected between eight and 20 arrivals a day to be affected by the disruption in coming weeks, and said the cancelled bookings would be re-released on days with flights from the UK.

Berich said he had been unable to find any managed isolation bookings that line up with flights.

"It's a really tough situation and we're hoping to see a little more engagement from the various agencies," he said.

While two airlines are still taking flights from the UK to New Zealand, Berich wanted the government to consider repatriation flights if that changed.

Shiwon Green, another Kiwi in the UK in the same boat, said it was devastating, distressing and potentially lethal for Kiwis to be kept away from their home country due to the lack of flexibility with managed isolation.

"To me that is not okay. You've got people who've given their lives and someone's getting a last minute ticket to have a summer holiday in New Zealand. It really doesn't quite resonate with me," she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Managed Isolation and Quarantine said people who needed to get home urgently should apply for an emergency allocation.

They said people whose flights had been cancelled should contact their airline first to see if they had made arrangements to reschedule their stay in isolation.

If not, but they were able to rebook for the same day, passengers should update their flight details by selecting "change flight" on their registration.

Passengers without rescheduled stays who could not book a flight for the same day should cancel their voucher and try to book a new one.

Extra vouchers being distributed - MIQ

The spokesperson said they were aware of some New Zealanders being caught out by border restrictions some countries were imposing on travellers from the UK.

"Some flights connecting to flights bound for New Zealand are being cancelled. From analysing the passenger data within the Managed Isolation Allocation System, we estimate this affects between 8-20 people per day over the next few weeks.

"In anticipation of lower arrival numbers we will be releasing additional vouchers into the Managed Isolation Allocation System over the next few weeks. Given the current situation in the UK we're aligning some of these vouchers with the days we know flights will be leaving the UK. We recommend people check in regularly to see if space has opened up on their preferred dates."

The spokesperson asked people to be considerate of others when booking vouchers and only book what they needed. People with vouchers they would be unable to use were asked to cancel them as soon as possible to make space for others.

Health experts weigh in on border restrictions

On the flipside, some health experts in New Zealand also had their own pleas for the government about border measures.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said the country needed to adapt as the virus mutates - and he wanted pre-travel Covid testing for New Zealanders before they flew home.

"We've got to put a lot more effort into our borders. I think the message I would take from this, is we need to add that extra step before passengers get on planes to New Zealand. Some of us have been talking about this for many months because it seems to be the missing element in New Zealand's defences," he said.

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles did not want anyone stopped from coming to the country because the place they were in did not offer testing.

Until scientists knew exactly how transmissible the new strains were, New Zealand's best defences against an outbreak were community actions like getting tested and using the Covid tracer app, she said.

"Regardless of how infectious it is, we know how to stop it. That is through having really good infection prevention and control measures, and everyone in the community doing things that mean that if a case gets through the border, we pick it up really fast," she said.

Moving into the festive season, Dr Wiles said that meant there was no time for complacency.

"Don't think this virus has gone away."

The Ministry of Health said yesterday it was keeping a close watch on international developments.

It declined RNZ's interview requests, as did the minister of health, the Covid-19 response minister and the duty minister.

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