23 Sep 2021

Government ministers wanted bespoke MIQ for athletes but were warned of public backlash

9:26 am on 23 September 2021

While returnees have been vying with international sports players for coveted spots in MIQ, documents sourced by RNZ show government ministers pressed for a dedicated, bespoke sports isolation hotel.

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Documents from August 2020 discussing upcoming tournaments show sports codes were well aware of the space in MIQ which they would use. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

The idea was shot down by officials who looked at options in Queenstown, then Rotorua and Wellington in February, and each time found a shortage of resources - and a risk of public backlash.

International sports players are able to enter the country using border exemptions for critical workers, but documents from August 2020 discussing upcoming tournaments show codes were well aware of the space in MIQ which they would use.

New Zealand Cricket mentioned potentially "encroaching" on public resources, while officials talked about the "perception that sports teams were displacing New Zealanders".

Ahead of the Women's Rugby World Cup, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Sports Minister Grant Robertson asked the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) for cost estimates for a dedicated sports MIQ in Queenstown.

When officials reported back in February they explained it would be difficult.

"A scoping visit was undertaken by MBIE to Queenstown in August last year to examine the potential of for establishing a sports-based MIF. The visit identified two hotels as potentially meeting MIF requirements," MIQ's allocation and supply policy manager James Johnson explained.

"There are limited health resources in the Queenstown area and workforce constraints ... there are also practical considerations which make Queenstown an unsuitable location."

Officials noted there was no tertiary health facility in Queenstown, and health staff would need to be brought in from Dunedin and Invercargill - at quite some expense.

There was also a "severe" shortage of security workers in the district and not enough training facilities available.

Officials estimated it would cost at least $776,000 to set up the hotel and $4.2 million a month to run it, excluding the cost of health staff and police.

Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult said he was disappointed that the idea was eventually scrapped. He had spoken to officials, and felt it could have been a boost to the local economy and morale.

"It would have brought people staying in the district. Obviously some activity for restaurants and accommodation properties. Also the possibility of having games in the district would have brought visitors," Boult said.

Later in February the ministers asked MBIE to do a similar cost analysis for sport MIQ hotels in Rotorua and Wellington, where it noted there was better access to health workers and sports grounds.

MBIE found it could be done for between $3.1m and $3.6m per month but it highlighted another series of challenges.

In a briefing to ministers it warned that "inbound sports teams often present with complex needs for their stay" with the example of ice-baths, in-room exercise equipment and added measures of health and safety.

"However, introducing an additional facility solely dedicated to dealing with inbound sports teams would likely create an adverse response from the public due to the perception of preferential treatment."

Officials said those complex needs would also lead to a bigger burden on all the staff who worked in the hotel, compared to a regular MIQ - and warned other sectors - like construction and education - might also start asking for dedicated MIQ facilities.

In a statement provided to RNZ, an MIQ spokesperson explained the idea of a sports isolation hotel was eventually "not progressed".

Instead, 448 rugby, cricket and netball players from 13 teams have been accommodated in a regular MIQ - the Chateau on the Park in Christchurch - and given a training exemption by the Director-General of Health to visit a sports ground nearby.

"These training facilities operate under level four restrictions, just like a MIF, but are used only for training purposes for a set period of time each day and are used exclusively for the entire exemption period by the relevant sports team. This exemption period is always at the end of their MIQ stay and after the team have met the required criteria, including two negative tests."

Some cricket players have used Burt Sutcliffe Oval in Lincoln and netball players have trained at the Celebration Stadium, while the Pakistani Men's Cricket Team had its training exemption suspended after ten positive Covid-19 results.

Another seven sports players from other teams - one in October, two in February, and five in January - had also tested positive during their stay.

The ministry said sports teams or players who hadn't been granted a training exemption were placed into the same MIQ hotel as the rest of their cohort of arrivals.

"For example, sports people and players returning from Tokyo Olympics were accommodated across multiple facilities depending on their day and city of arrival."

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