Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) vouchers will remain on hold for weeks as the government handles the Delta outbreak, urging patience from New Zealanders overseas and - finally - improving the booking system.
A group that has been petitioning the government for such changes says it does not address the lack of supply of MIQ rooms, and there's little confidence they will make things fairer.
Speaking at the daily briefing today, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand's MIQ system was under increased pressure from the latest outbreak of the virus.
As a result, the pause on new vouchers becoming available for New Zealanders overseas who hoped to return to New Zealand would continue.
"We do need to be able to isolate current Covid-19 cases in the community and their close contacts safely in order to bring the entire of New Zealand back to a sense of normality as quickly as possible," he said.
"That is why we are asking Kiwis abroad to play their part in this response by being patient. I acknowledge that is a very challenging thing to ask of them."
Hipkins warned the changes would not remove the high levels of demand.
"Clearly there is a lot of demand, so those who were hoping to have a summer holiday in New Zealand my request of them is to leave the vouchers ... now is not a good time to come home for a holiday with the intention of returning back to where you are."
There would be more vouchers before the end of the year, he said, but not for the next two weeks at least.
The Grounded Kiwis group has been petitioning the government for urgent changes to the MIQ system since before the latest outbreak, and Hong Kong-based spokesperson Martin Newell said it was not just angry expats and holidaymakers who were affected.
"Everyone is proud of New Zealand's response to the pandemic and obviously there is an outbreak of Delta right now, which is tough ... but there are still people that need to leave the country that they're in because their visas are expiring, there are people that need to leave the country for medical treatment.
"We're not talking about people that just want to come home for a holiday for Christmas ... there's people that need to come home because they've lost their job, because their loved ones are sick, because they need medical treatment. The goverment is not meeting that demand."
The system was causing stress and anxiety for many of these people, he said.
"For so many people it's not just hopeless, for them it's actually upsetting."
Hipkins said it was not just the physical facilities that the government needed to consider - there was no easy way to expand the MIQ workforce.
"People do have to adjust their expectations a little bit at the moment."
He said the pause was "unavoidable", with the Novotel Ellerslie and Holiday Inn Auckland Airport managed isolation facilities being converted to quarantine facilities for those infected in the community.
The Crowne Plaza - one of the biggest facilities, where a case believed to be the origin of the latest outbreak stayed - was also still out of action while undergoing assessments.
"I acknowledge that that is not easy for New Zealanders abroad who are looking to come home."
Newell said there were challenges around workforce, and infection control, but there were things that could be done - and were being done overseas.
"If you look even across the Tasman to Australia they are building quarantine capacity. They are looking to increase capacity to increase arrivals and do it more safely.
"Hotels were never built to be quarantine centres."
Hipkins said some group bookings including some RSE workers who were due to be arriving in the coming month were also being deferred.
Changes to MIQ bookings system
The carrot to Hipkins' MIQ stick - promised changes to the booking system - have long been called for by those struggling to find a spot in MIQ, with the first-come, first-served approach necessitating computer automation scripts and bots to make bookings.
Hipkins said the changes would be in place next time vouchers became available again, and would include two things: "foreshadowing" of when large sets of vouchers would become available, and a new "virtual lobby" system.
"The lobby is a virtual queue. It will mean that people can be selected from the queue randomly, removing the need for people to be the fastest to hit the button," he said.
"Once all the rooms have been taken, the lobby will be closed and anybody in the queue will be informed that they have unfortunately missed out this time."
It would make bookings more transparent and easier, and create a more level playing field, he said. Warnings of when new bookings would become available could also remove the need to constantly refresh the bookings website.
Newell said the proposed changes were encouraging but he had no confidence they would be effective.
"The government is finally listening and trying to make changes ... until we actually see how it works in practice it's very hard to know if it's going to improve things."
"Hopefully when the system does open up that will put some fairness back in the system but fundamentally there is still a shortage of supply.
He said a waiting list of demand for particular days could also help the government more efficiently manage capacity.
Party leaders weigh in
National's leader Judith Collins said she was sympathetic - both to those unable to come home, and to the government's plight.
"I think it's a really difficult situation and I have some sympathy with the government on this ... they've completely stuffed up the vaccine rollout and they've only now decided to start putting some action into it and now they don't have enough MIQ spots. Well, of course it's not acceptable."
"Some degree of sympathy for the government ... but more sympathy for the New Zealanders caught overseas."
She said National had called for purpose-built facilities near the airport a year ago, and the government was not listening to advice.
"I just don't know why they won't listen to the advice that they're given. If they don't want to listen to us then they should listen to their own experts like the Simpson-Roche report."
ACT leader David Seymour said Hipkins' plea to holidaymakers "denies the reality of so many people separated from families" and the need for more nurses.
"Before Covid we had 20,000 people a day enterning New Zealand, now it's down to 200. That's a 99 percent reduction in people coming through the border, that's putting massive pressure not just on people having holidays - don't forget the tourism industry - but also our health response depends on our supply of health professionals.
"It's not just people coming home from holiday, it's our long term response to Covid that depends on being able to let people in while keeping the virus out.
"If we are going to have a hard border and lockdowns ... we will graudally see New Zealand money and talent draining out and we will be all the poorer for it."
Green co-leader James Shaw said the government had done a good job overall, and the health advice needed to be followed.
"Particualrly given the increased transmission risk with delta it does require a higher level of caution than we had even last year. So I know people will experience that as unfair - and in a sense, it is - but unfortunately it is a function of the circumstances that we're in.
"We've had a total of 26 deaths in the entire period of this. You compare that to virtually every other country on earth, clearly the health response that we have taken has been an effective one overall and when you look at the state of our economy it is outperforming most of our comparison countries in the OECD.
"At the same time I think there are elements of it, like anybody, that we would like to go out even further."