30 Nov 2021

Tenth try for MIQ room goes to waste for woman after reduced release

5:21 pm on 30 November 2021

Some people wanting to return to New Zealand have been left out in the cold after the Omicron variant of Covid-19 prompted a last-minute change to the number of MIQ rooms released today.

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Instead of 3100 rooms going online today, officials cut capacity to 2050, citing a rapidly evolving situation with the new variant. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Officials said they were taking precautions so there was enough room for community cases as well as international arrivals in the coming days and weeks.

That included travellers from 'high risk' countries who need to spend 14 days in MIQ, rather than seven.

Today, 3100 rooms were due to go up for grabs, but this morning MIQ announced it had sliced more than 1000 rooms off the number available.

That meant Savannah Jackson's wait in the 'virtual lobby' ended in disappointment.

"I got 2500-something. And they originally had over 3000 rooms so I thought okay, I would have been in. Unfortunately not."

Jackson had taken part in every MIQ lottery to date, in a bid to get a voucher for her partner and daughter so they could return from Australia next month. She has not had any luck.

Last week, she got past the lobby but the only date available was the very next day, meaning there was not enough time to get a Covid-19 test.

"There are people who've tried two times and got a spot. I'm now on the tenth time. There's no priority, there's no recognition for previous attempts. It's just a huge waste of time."

MIQ said it would continue to release as many rooms as it could in a safe, manageable way.

It said the decision to cut capacity in the booking system in light of Omicron was "purely precautionary".

It noted travellers from very high-risk countries would now have to spend twice the time in MIQ, including nine southern African countries added to the government's list on Sunday.

University of Otago infectious diseases specialist Dr Lucy Telfar Barnard believed the limit on capacity was warranted while there were so many unknowns with the Omicron variant.

"In two or three weeks, we should have a better understanding of what the infectiousness is like, what the infectious period is, how severe it is, and whether that's actually different from what we're dealing with now with Delta and previous strains."

Dr Telfar-Barnard said officials were giving themselves options.

"Just making sure that they've got some extra rooms in case people need to spend longer in MIQ because the incubation turns out to be longer."

When asked what assurances she can give people overseas who have missed out on a spot, and were now worried that Omicron would result in even stricter border settings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country's current border system had served well.

MIQ said there were still several thousand rooms to be released through to March.

The date of the next room release is yet to be confirmed.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said with the new variant other countries were reinstating or creating border controls, but New Zealand already had "careful and cautious border controls" throughout the pandemic that had "served us well".

"At any specific time, there will be rooms that are vacated for 'switchovers', so once a cohort leaves, we'll have vacant rooms, they are cleaned, refreshed available for the next cohort. We keep emergency provision and we keep rooms for community managed isolation as well."

She said so far about 190,000 people had come through the borders safely.

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