13 Jul 2021

Jacinda Ardern: Pregnant NZer stranded in Sydney likely eligible for flight

9:23 am on 13 July 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says a pregnant New Zealander trying to get back from Sydney would appear to be eligible for one of the priority seats on a flight home.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Mercy flights from New South Wales will begin today, with travellers heading into managed isolation upon arrival.

Bookings opened at 10am yesterday and seats were snapped up within 15 minutes.

Carol Taupau, who has been stuck in Sydney since flying there for her aunt's funeral in June, is 26 weeks pregnant, has two young children at home and can't work remotely.

Taupau said she told the government's call centre she wanted to get back to Auckland and to complete isolation so she could go to her midwife appointments and have a check-up.

She said the call centre told her she would not qualify for an urgent or exceptional need exemption, but to fill out a form anyway.

"I was really disappointed with the service that I got. I know they've been stressing with the number of calls they've been getting and I know that I'm probably not the only one that's pregnant and trying to get back. It's really hard," she told RNZ.

Ardern said the criteria set out for the 20 percent of seats allocated for those who need to urgently come back in exceptional circumstances include if there are care needs for children, people with medical reasons to return and also financial distress.

"I can't say what information was or wasn't shared with the call centre but that's the criteria.

"On first blush, hearing that, I would have thought she would have [met the criteria].

"If she only spoke to one element of her case then I can't in all fairness say whether the call centre worker would have been aware of her circumstances.

"She has the form, complete that, get it back to MBIE, then I imagine they will be able to fully assess her circumstances."

Rachel Loney-Howes said her father is also stranded and she and her family tried to get a ticket.

"There were three of us sitting round on our laptops trying to refresh the page to get a ticket home, calling the travel agent as well and they were too late to be able to organise anything.

"He's very upset, very angry as well because evidently Qantas were calling up people and prioritising those who need to get back to New Zealand over others so there was a bit more of a method to how they were addressing the problem, but Air New Zealand haven't done that."

Loney-Howes said before her father travelled to New South Wales they were told by officials the risk to travel was low.

"People will be feeling really guilty as well because of course they knew the risks that this could happen but they feel really abandoned by the New Zealand government around how they have essentially a number of New Zealanders stranded here."

Seats on flights out are linked to the number of managed isolation places available - currently about 1000 rooms.

Air New Zealand said more seats would be made available as more MIQ spots were provided.

Ardern said New Zealanders had to prepare for disruption if they used the travel bubble - and of all the Australian states New South Wales was the one that had taken a different approach to Covid-19 than New Zealand.

It had often relied on contact-tracing, she said, and tended not to use restrictions early on, while other states had put in limitations that give more reassurance over the risk to New Zealanders.

"Because of the way those states tend to use their restrictions, the likelihood of New Zealanders being exposed to risk is lessened.

"It means that even if we put in place a pause we can often allow a repatriation back into New Zealand that doesn't require MIQ."

Ardern defended free managed isolation spots for people returning from Australia.

"Our role as government is to take what we consider fair and reasonable steps based on the expectations New Zealand had when they travelled.

"When we made the decision to open up trans-Tasman arrangements we were very deliberate in saying if we have circumstances where we as government require people to go into managed isolation, our view is it's only fair that we take the cost of that because that will be a decision that we've taken that someone will not have necessarily a reasonable expectation that that might occur when they left.

"When people travel off to the United States and the UK they know on their return they have to into managed isolation and they pay for that."

National's Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said stranded New Zealanders was a very tough tough situation for the government to deal with.

"At the end of the day people were told if they were going to Australia as part of the bubble it was flyer beware.

"People have got to cope with that."

National would lean towards charging people for MIQ on their return, he said.

"People went over there knowing that this could potentially be an outcome. The instructions were clear that you may have to come back and end up going into MIQ and that you could be charged. I think New Zealanders here would have a legitimate expectation that people would be charged for the use of those facilities."

He said it should be possible to set up a waiting list system for MIQ, and to stop people running automated coding scripts to constantly scan and auto-fill the booking site.

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