15 Nov 2022

Plan to restore MIQ if needed

3:03 pm on 15 November 2022

By Marc Daalder for Newsroom

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Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Quarantine at the border could be restored within four weeks as a 'minimum viable product' if the need arose, according to a new readiness plan for MIQ.

While Cabinet has yet to decide on the possibility of a permanent border quarantine programme, officials have created an interim plan to bridge the gap between the closure of the last MIQ facility earlier this year and any future purpose-built facility.

The document, quietly released by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment last week, shows a "minimum viable product" of 1500 rooms across Auckland and Christchurch could be set up within four weeks of a border closure.

In the meantime, incoming travellers would be asked to self-isolate as in the early days of the pandemic.

The number of available rooms could double after another two weeks and then double again to a maximum of 6000 two weeks later.

Such a move would only occur in the event of the emergence of a worst-case Covid-19 variant which was highly immune-evasive and caused much more severe illness, the plan states. At full capacity, the system would cost $57 million a month, excluding the cost of contribution of staff from government agencies.

"A readiness plan has been developed by MBIE which bridges the gap between the wind down of MIQ facilities and any investment in a longer-term capability. It outlines details on the steps needed to implement quarantine and isolation capability under urgency, should legislation be passed requiring a need to reintroduce border restrictions and the need for people entering New Zealand to quarantine or isolate," general manager in charge of MIQ, Shane Gray, told Newsroom.

The old MIQ booking system would be revived, but with changes incorporated after an internal review and the Grounded Kiwis court case.

"From the outset MIQ has focused on continuous improvement. The readiness plan includes amendments based on lessons learned over two years of operating MIQ, together with recommendations from the Office of the Ombudsman, feedback from users of the MIQ system and judicial review findings," Gray said.

Other agencies involved in the original MIQ system would also return, including aviation security and (for the first six weeks) about 500 Defence Force personnel.

The reserve hotel capacity has already been secured through contracts with seven former MIQ facilities that are currently set to expire in June. However, Gray said the government has renewal rights past June. According to the plan, no funding has yet been provided for any contracts beyond the middle of the year.

This is one of a range of potential obstacles envisaged by the plan.

Others include a reluctance from potential staff to work at an interim MIQ given the stigma faced by past workers and the likely short timeframe of operation. At the same time, the programme would need a "very large" number of staff on "very short" notice. Many roles would be filled by secondments from other agencies.

A separate plan, not yet released by the government, deals with the need for an emergency evacuation capacity. When New Zealanders were evacuated from Wuhan in early 2020, they were housed at Whangaparāoa Navy Base which had hastily been converted into a mini-village.

Now, evacuees would instead stay at hotels on urgent retainers which could be ready with up to 300 rooms within a week.

A small core of MIQ staff will steward and improve the plan until it is activated or no longer relevant. They'll also work on the National Quarantine Capability programme, which aims to create an enduring border programme for future health emergencies.

"MBIE has prepared a business case setting out options for what this may entail. Any decision on the way forward is a matter for Cabinet, who are due to consider advice on the NQC before the end of the year. If approved, the next phase will be to implement recommendations and evolve MIQ into an enduring NQC," Gray said.

- This story was first published on Newsroom

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