New Zealanders stranded overseas are incensed after they were told a freeze on managed isolation bookings meant they could "take a break" from their round-the-clock attempts to find an MIQ space.
The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) announced last night that bookings would be paused for a few days due to the latest Covid-19 outbreak.
A woman trying to secure her own managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) voucher asked MBIE on Twitter why the change had been made. The response: "Hi, it helps because people can take a break from refreshing the website while there's a pause."
MBIE has since apologised for not being clearer and for causing upset.
"Don't know what's more tone deaf: the tweet, or not deleting it 12 hours later after it's caused a firestorm," said one Twitter user this morning. It has since been taken down.
One user responded to the tweet saying it was an "absolutely disgraceful response from anyone in these times, let alone a government department. You should be ashamed. Be kind - Yeah right."
New Zealander Martin Newell, who is trying to return with his family from Hong Kong, is a member of the Grounded Kiwis group, which has 3000 members.
It was set up by people unable to access MIQ and has a 15,000-name petition being taken to Parliament to lobby for MIQ changes.
"You know what, everyone would love to not refresh the website, but they would love to actually say 'hey we've improved the system', so that you don't have to refresh the website," he said.
"I don't think it's very helpful. I think that a lot of people are stressed and anxious, and are needing to get home. We absolutely believe that MIQ provides a valuable service in keeping New Zealanders safe, and we understand that the government is providing MIQ rooms to those that are unable to isolate safely at home, and we support that as a way to contain this outbreak that New Zealand's currently experiencing.
"But there was a letter posted this morning from MBIE, talking about the availability of rooms, and in this letter they have over 800 rooms available in September, but they have not released, and they have over 2000 rooms available in October and November. Now, September starts in just over a week so why so many rooms have been held back?"
Figures to quantify the number of people unable to access MIQ were hard to come by, but the group is carrying out surveys to find that out, he said.
From what was already known, MIQ was meeting as little as 15 percent of demand and a good proportion of those trying to get places were New Zealanders needing to leave the country to see dying relatives or get medical treatment overseas.
One woman was 28 weeks pregnant in El Salvador and told by doctors she should return to New Zealand to give birth; instead she faces a $100,000 medical bill to give birth as an overstayer on a transit visa in America.
"Recently there was a another lady who contacted us, she's an Irish ex-patriot," Newell said. "Her sister was diagnosed with cancer in Ireland and that has metastasised all over her body ... she wants to go and say goodbye to her sister, but she cannot get a spot in MIQ. There are so many of these stories that are just tragedies that are not being met by the current system."
In a written statement, Joint Head of MIQ Megan Main said the announcement about pausing the release of rooms was intended to reduce stress.
"The current community outbreak means MIQ needs to carefully manage capacity as community members enter facilities to quarantine," she said. "We understand that it is stressful for people trying to secure a room when demand is high. We know that many people are constantly refreshing the website looking for rooms.
"The announcement about pausing the release and re-release of rooms was intended to reduce stress and inform people seeking to book a voucher, so that they could stop refreshing the website as there would be no rooms to secure.
"We apologise for not making this clearer in the tweet and for any upset caused. We can assure people that the emergency allocation process remains open for New Zealanders who require urgent travel within the next 14 days. We will let people know when the system returns to normal."