11 Aug 2021

Dwindling MIQ room supply as govt increases its own allocation

7:59 pm on 11 August 2021

Returning New Zealanders are competing with foreign sportspeople and Antarctic staff for coveted places in managed isolation.

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Signs outside a managed isolation and quarantine facility in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

New documents show that while desperate travellers fear bots are stealing their managed isolation (MIQ) places - and the government points to growing demand - a dwindling supply of rooms is aggravating the situation.

The government has taken a larger allocation of the available MIQ spaces, increasing to 500 from 300 places a fortnight it takes for its own projects and policies this year. And public health advice on separating out returnees is expected to lead to a 15 percent fall in supply.

While the names of those famous MIQ-wranglers the Wiggles, America's Cup crews, actors, nannies and tribute bands are on the lips of anyone unhappy with government's border priorities, more recent events and programmes approved by ministers are less well-known.

Documents obtained by RNZ show overseas participants in a mountain bike festival are the latest group to get the nod for government-mandated spots in managed isolation, with the government asked to approve 70 foreign athletes and staff attending November's Crankworx event in Rotorua.

Also on the list to be approved were 60 international competitors, staff and media for the Winter Games starting in the South Island at the end of this month.

Ministers also signed up for hundreds of international workers to come through MIQ on their way to Antarctica, while government-approved programmes such as overseas builders and RSE workers were announced in May.

Briefings show how many requests officials are fielding from organisations lobbying the government for MIQ spaces, and how ministers are weighing up the competing needs of industry, international relations and sporting events.

They suggest demand for MIQ from sports and other government-approved events and programme could be particularly acute in October, depending on whether the Crankworx competitors arrive, along with New Zealanders returning from the Dubai business expo, the Antarctica programme staff and RSE workers.

The April briefings to ministers show the approvals were thought possible because of MIQ spaces at that point being freed up by the trans-Tasman bubble, an estimated saving of 1000 to 1300 rooms.

Further decisions about group MIQ allocations covering a "pipeline" of events from November to March will also see managed isolation spots reserved for athletes - at the busiest time for New Zealanders clamouring to return home.

The full list of the events which allow border exemptions for "other critical workers" can be viewed here.

In a statement, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said it had approved requests for 356 workers related to the Antarctic Programme under the 'other critical worker' border exception since 18 June and was processing another 201 received last week.

"We have not yet received any 'other critical worker' requests for upcoming Crankworx events but we have been actively working with organisers," said its general manager of border and visa operations, Nicola Hogg.

"There is no cap on the number of workers who may be approved as part of these 'other critical worker' requests. We will continue to process any requests when they are received, in line with the criteria."

15 percent reduction in MIQ availability

At the same time the government has reduced supply by setting aside more spaces for projects it supports, the overall supply of rooms is also falling.

Managed isolation capacity has been subject to some debate, including how many of the rooms have sat vacant and at what expense.

In December its operational capacity was 4500, and that came down to 4000 when the trans-Tasman bubble started in April, because 500 rooms were set aside in case of an outbreak in Australia.

Managed Isolation and Quarantine online booking page with no availability.

The Managed Isolation and Quarantine online booking page with no availability. Photo: RNZ

MIQ has now revealed that the projected usable spaces in managed isolation further reduced by 15 percent when "cohorting" or grouping of arrivals started in May.

Cohorting aims to prevent recent arrivals with Covid-19 from infecting people who are about to leave and works by having hotels accept travellers for four days before closing their doors to new guests for a fortnight.

"The introduction of cohorting has meant that after 96 hours, we are unable to continue to fill a facility which leaves some rooms unavailable for a period of time," according to the MIQ website.

"A cohorting cycle can be between 18-20 days - this accounts for the four days of infill, the 14 days isolation for the returnees and one-two days to clean before the next cohort.

"Flight schedules play a vital part in the filling period - if there are no flights, or flights are cancelled, this has a significant impact on occupancy, and more rooms are unoccupied."

MIQ has also changed the way it counts empty rooms, by including the empty rooms caused by cohorting in its count of allocated rooms.

The voucher system is now booked out until the end of November, with no word yet on when returning New Zealanders can book places in December and next year.

In June, joint head of MIQ Brigadier Rose King said vouchers for December would be released once airlines had confirmed their schedules.

"Airlines are likely to have schedules available in July 2021 for November onwards," she said.

A spokesperson for MIQ said the group arrivals expected to enter MIQ include:

  • Antarctic programme: 800 spots, August 2021 to November 2021
  • Dubai Expo: 401 spots, October 2021 to March 2022
  • Crankworx: 70 spots, October 2021

They said MIQ was working through options and timing for when MIQ rooms would be released for December.

MIQ said more vouchers will be released for the coming months.

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