17 Feb 2022

MIQ rules begin to loosen as border opens and Omicron spreads

5:45 pm on 17 February 2022

More people are expected to be able to leave MIQ early after Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield signed off on a new risk assessment tool.

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Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) group lead Chris Bunny told a select committee this morning that criteria for exemptions to leave MIQ early were being relaxed in recognition of the changes going on with Omicron and the reopening border.

He said Bloomfield had signed off on an updated risk assessment on Tuesday night which came into effect yesterday.

"Previously under the old tool we really weren't able to release anyoine prior to the day 3 test, so that's been brought forward so they can be considered for release from day 0/1," he said.

People would also be allowed to take public transport, including between the North and South Island, and vaccination status of children would be less of a barrier.

"If we had a party that had unvaccinated children, which was often not of their choice ... that party would be prohibited leaving as well, so applicants under 13 no longer require vaccination [for the group to leave MIQ early]."

MBIE had not done modelling on how many people could be expected to leave MIQ early as a result of the changes, Bunny said, but it was not expected to have a major impact on processing.

"Clearly it's going to be more than it was previously ... there will be some more but I don't think it's going to be significant in terms of jsut the fact that it's coming off a low base of application in the first place."

Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins this afternoon said the risks were much different now compared to when the government was pursuing an elimination strategy.

"Now in the environment we're going into, there will be more risk, there will be more cases in the community and therefore our ability to adapt to meet people's individual circumstances ... I think there'll be a lot more flexibility there than there has been previously.

"MIQ is not a system you would have in an ideal world. It's served us well overall as a country but there's no question that for individuals it's had a significant impact."

National's Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop said the criteria should have been changed earlier.

"We've had Omicron in the comunity now for two-and-a-half, three weeks and the ministry did not get around to updating that assessment tool for quite some time.

"The unfortunate reality of their tardiness.... there will be people who have stayed in MIQ who would otherwise have been allowed out for compassionate reasons. It's solely on the ministry and government incompetence.

"When you're trying to keep Covid out of the community of course it makes sense to have very strict criteria. The moment Covid is in the community - and particularly with Omicron spreading very rapidly in the community - of course the criteria around compassionate early exemptions has to change."

Self-isolation may begin early for some travellers

Bunny also revealed some travellers may be able to go into self-isolation this month, before international borders begin reopening in stages from 28 February.

Bishop had asked him if people who had made emergency applications to enter MIQ might be allowed to go into self-isolation.

Bunny said that was the Medical Officer of Health's decision to make, not MBIE's, but they had been meeting to discuss MIQ settings.

"I would imagine that some potential travellers could well apply for ... self isolation approval based on their believed ability to isolate safely outside of an MIQ facility," he said.

Bunny said it was likely this exemption could be granted to other travellers as well, not just those on emergency applications.

"We have spoken with them [Medical Officers of Health] and they certainly seem to be moving in that direction ... I haven't seen anything formally written to suggest how they're going to approach these things."

If the decision was made, people would be able to apply under Clause 12, Section 4 of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Isolation and Quarantine Order.

These changes reflected the constantly changing environment presented by Covid-19, he said.

"We regularly work with our health colleagues to review issues and one of the things that's been a feature of the MIQ environment is that it hasn't been the same response all the time.

It was something which had been brought home to MBIE after a court case in October.

"Essentially the court found that because of Delta and the fact that the community situation was changing ... the border wasn't presenting the same risks."

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