7 Jul 2021

MBIE found dedicated MIQ facilities an 'unfeasible' option

5:39 am on 7 July 2021

Government officials deemed it "unfeasible" to custom-build quarantine facilities as recently as last month, but ministers insist the idea is being genuinely considered.

Minister for the Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said dedicated MIQ facilities would take some time to build but the option was still worth exploring. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday told Morning Report the strategy was one option on the table in the country's long-term defence against the virus.

But in a statement provided to RNZ on 14 June, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) outlined its clear reluctance to build new accommodation for managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).

"MBIE has determined that the time required to plan, fund and construct a purpose-built MIQ facility means that this is an unfeasible option," the letter said.

In the statement, MBIE general manager MIQ policy Kara Isaac confirmed the government had rejected "numerous proposals" from the private sector and public last year.

"While gratefully received, the cost, planning issues and time constraints continue to be important obstacles," Isaac said.

"Significant uncertainties remain about how long such a facility would be needed, and whether the benefits of constructing such a facility would justify the cost."

Speaking at Parliament yesterday, Hipkins acknowledged it would take "quite some time to plan, to consent, and to build" such facilities, but said it was still worth exploring.

"When we're thinking about longer-term planning... then obviously we can think about things that perhaps weren't so feasible for short-term options."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Cabinet was exploring a range of possibilities, but stressed "nothing [was] immediately on the horizon".

Further documents released to RNZ under the Official Information Act show more than a dozen proposals to convert or construct MIQ facilities have been turned down to date.

The applicants included: Fletcher Construction and City Rail Link Ltd, Waikato-Tainui iwi, Auckland Tourism, schools, universities, and a Northland luxury lodge owner.

In a paper dated September last year, MBIE officials said most of the approaches related to bringing specific groups into the country, such as students or skilled workers.

Officials said the requests were "often unclear about who would staff or run" the facilities and assessing them was "complex and time-consuming".

Key constraints included the limits on available health services and staff, as well as the requirement for facilities to meet rigorous health and security standards, officials said.

National MP Chris Bishop told RNZ, in this case, the government needed to listen to the overwhelming chorus of experts, not its Ministry officials.

"A lot of people recognise it would be in the public interest to have a purpose-built facility, not just for Covid-19, but also for future pandemics," Bishop said.

"I don't understand why the government has been so reluctant... the more planning you do for the future, the better off you will be."

Bishop said he hoped Cabinet would move quickly and have buildings in place within six to nine months.

University of Otago public health expert Professor Nick Wilson publicly called for the government to adopt specially-designed facilities in September last year.

He said Ministers and their officials were "not at all smart" to flippantly dismiss the idea at the time.

Wilson said the current hotel model was clearly not up to the standard required with the new infectious variants of Covid-19.

"The cost of a failure that spirals out of control is incredibly expensive. The Auckland August outbreak last year cost hundreds of millions of dollars a week.

"For that type of money, you could build a lot of facilities."

A state-of-the-art facility could also be used for future pandemics, he said.

Wilson said the government had not demonstrated a "high degree of flexible thinking" on the matter to date.

"It's only when it's starting to be embarrassed by what's happening in Australia... that it's relooking at this."

The Australian government last month announced it would construct a new purpose-built quarantine facility in Victoria to house high-risk arrivals.

The location will operate alongside the Howard Springs quarantine camp in Northern Territory.

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