20 Sep 2021

Tears and cheers as thousands miss spots in MIQ offering

5:32 pm on 20 September 2021

There has been disappointment and frustration for the 22,000 New Zealanders trying to get home through the MIQ system who missed out on places this morning.

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Thousands have missed out on places in MIQ, after trying to make bookings this morning. Photo: 123rf

At least 25,000 people were vying for a place using a new 'virtual lobby system'.

Just 3000 of them, who were randomly given a spot at the front of the queue, were able to get a booking for rooms from September through to December.

Father of three Tim Vaughn was hoping to get back to his wife and children in New Zealand from Singapore, and said it was frustrating there was no system of prioritisation.

"Was allocated a ticket in the queue which I think was about 16,700 and something ... got down to there was about 12,500 and something before the rooms were all booked out so I wasn't even close to being able to secure a spot unfortunately.

"I've heard from a number of people now that are going back to New Zealand for Christmas, to see family, and then they're going back overseas so they're only going back for a holiday ... I'm moving back permanently, I want to pay tax, I want to invest in New Zealand companies, I want to stay put and I just find it hard to comprehend that I'm treated the same as someone wanting to take a holiday... I find that side really a bitter pill to swallow.

"It's heart-wrenching, it's just absolutely gutting. It's hard to know whether the system's an improvement, I guess on one level I think it makes it slightly fairer where people are given a random spot in the queue so it will prevent bots and potentially third parties that have some sort of an advantage at being able to book a spot.

"The eight and the six-year-old, they understand it a little bit and they, you know, are really upset. The three-year-old who I was talking to this morning, keeps asking if I've left yet or if I'm on my way and he doesn't understand it and he gets really teary.

He said he would call them every evening to sing the boys to sleep.

"That's the only way we can kind of stay connected, so we're making it work but I don't see how this is the right thing... I just can't comprehend how sports teams, government officials, people that are going to conferences - they're getting priority. It beggars belief really."

He suggested there should be more options and a points-based system to make it fairer still.

"A points-based system would not in any way create... too much of a resource overload... there are dozens and dozens of companies that could deliver on something like that. It would be a simple system, probably a checkbox system, where it allowed people to, you know, progress more quickly.

"I'd pay for a private MIQ, I'd pay a bond if it means I've got to do a stay-at-home quarantine, I'd be willing to entertain anything - even live out in a field somewhere... but the fact that there's no other option than going through this incredibly poor system, it's hard to understand how it makes sense to me."

Stella Blake-Kelly wants to move home from Sydney, where she has been in lockdown, living alone in an apartment.

After hours on the phone with a friend last night, preparing to make a booking, she was placed at number 5000 in the queue, and missed out.

"It was a slow gradual process, swapping between being optimistic and pessimistic, but I eventually just gave up when it said there weren't any spots for December, November or October."

More room releases were planned, but Blake-Kelly said she was now pinning her hopes on the borders reopening when there are high vaccination levels.

Others who tried to use the booking system were frustrated at being offered spots in MIQ that didn't line up with available flights.

Ben Reynolds wants to move home from New York before his visa expires next year.

He was offered rooms on a few different dates - but they either didn't match up with flights - or meant he had to pack up his life and get to Los Angeles within 16 hours.

"My situation is not as dire as other people's, but it certainly does feel arbitrary, and that we're not really getting Kiwis home, which is ultimately what our passport in theory should enable us to do."

Annette McAinch, who is coming back for good from Vietnam, was one of the lucky ones, but said booking was just the first step in the process.

"I'm still shaking, I'm still stressed, there's still a lot of hard work for me to do for me to get my feet on the ground in New Zealand.

"I've got my flights lined up so I've got to go back into the system and load my flights in the system ... I'll have to get down to Ho Chi Minh city from Penang where I live, I plan to go down there about three days before I'm due to fly out and just camp out in an airport hotel ... with Singapore airlines I've got to get my PCR test done within 48 hours of landing in Singapore."

"I'm not sure exciting is the right word, relieved. I really feel for the people that are in a much worse position than me and need to get home but I need to get home too. I haven't seen my family in two years, my mum's 82 and she's not in the best of health, and it's overwhelming."

She had been trying to get home since July, but had not been able to make it work under the previous system.

"Because I work a lot online I wasn't available 24/7 to refresh. When I did do refresh sessions it was really really difficult, I only saw a few dates come up every once in a while but every time I clicked on them I was just too slow."

While the new system was an improvement, it could be much better.

"For me it worked out. It was still a very very stressful system ... I've found all of the information that you can find on the MIQ site was wanting, maybe they didn't even know. But as someone who's qualified at bursary level to set up systems and processes ... and communication, I've found it well below par."

Also among the fortunate was a New Zealand father who had been stuck in Spain. He said he felt like he'd won the lottery after securing spots for his family and himself to return home.

Allistair and his two children all logged in separately, and after waiting for an hour in the virtual lobby, his daughter exclaimed that she was second in the queue.

"I couldn't believe it really. I looked over my laptop, and my laptop said there were 22,500 people ahead of me in the queue.

"It feels like an extremely unfair way to be doing things."

It was a huge relief to have secured the spots, but Allistair said he worried about those who had not been as lucky as him.

"I lost my job at the start of Covid last year, essentially running out of money and no access to public healthcare I was getting pretty worried really."

"It feels a huge relief to be honest, that's how I feel, a huge relief. It's been very stressful ... it's not a nice thing that you might not be able to return back to your country when your situation's not great.

"It really feels like winning a lottery ... at the same time it really feels like an extremely unfair way to be doing things. I think citizens should always have the right to be able to return back to their country."

In a statement, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said about 400 rooms were snapped up in the first 20 minutes, and December had proven the most popular month.

"This is not a first-in, first-served model. It doesn't matter when people arrived in the lobby in that 1 hour period between 8 and 9am - everyone has an equal chance of getting through to try to secure a room. There is no limit on how many people can wait in the lobby and there is no need to keep refreshing the website anymore. People can see their place in the queue," the ministry said.

"Although this new feature should improve user experience, it is not a silver bullet - it will not fix the issue of supply and demand. There are still only a limited number of rooms available during the room release, which means that given the current demand for rooms there will still be people who miss out."

Another room release is planned for next week.

National's Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop said there should be some kind of prioritisation.

"I would describe it as a bit of a trainwreck," he said. "We do think that there should be some sort of prioritisation based on need and based on reason for travel and we'll continue to call for that."

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