19 Jan 2022

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins defends MIQ hold announcement

6:43 pm on 19 January 2022

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins fronted to media after a decision yesterday to delay the next MIQ release due to an increase in Omicron cases at the border.

The MIQ lottery system was put on pause by the government, with a statement from head of MIQ Chris Bunny last night saying an "unprecedented" number of positive Omicron cases appearing at the border required more rooms to be set aside for them to quarantine.

In a media release this afternoon, Hipkins said the pause was temporary, and rooms would be released again after Cabinet considered its options, including about reopening the border.

"In the meantime, our focus will be on getting booster rates up and immunising as many 5-11 year-olds as possible before Omicron takes hold in the community," he said.

In a media stand-up this afternoon, Hipkins says the announcement about the delay to MIQ room releases was done via the website only and not sent directly to journalists because the government wanted to get the information out to people as quickly as possible.

"I haven't normally been involved in the announcements around when room releases are made."

He says this is an operation matter, and the delay is for until decisions are made about the border.

"We have to recognise that the MIQ is very full, we're dealing with far, far more positive cases at the border every day now ... the system has generally operated with two or three, generally, positive cases at the border. It's now operating at between 40 and 50 positive cases at the border.

"We're having to convert a lot of MIQ rooms to quarantine facilities, and that is putting that system under quite a lot of strain."

Today, the Ministry of Health reported 56 new cases of Covid-19 at the border.

Hipkins says releasing rooms for March and April have been paused for a period of time, while the January and February bookings have already been made.

He says the information being put up yesterday afternoon, before being pulled from the website then put back up about 8pm with additional information, was not at all a stuff-up. He made the decision yesterday, he says.

Chris Hipkins

Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He says there is no question the country is moving towards a self-isolation model.

"I think there's a lot of people who would prefer to isolate at home ... so we've got to finalise those decisions. We'll be working as quickly as we can to do that."

"The question of exactly what the date is, that's the question that's before us at the moment.

"I think we're likely to have MIQ for quite some time, whether we have MIQ for everybody is a different question to that ... we will need MIQ for people who haven't been vaccinated, for people who can't otherwise isolate ... and of course we'll still need quarantine as well."

He says the provisional dates for reopening the border in April are still the plan, but notes that "everything can change".

He says the government is working to give people certainty as soon as they can.

"There's no question that Omicron will make it into the New Zealand community, so people do need to be prepared for that. The best thing people can do ... is make sure that they've had their booster shots, to take up the opportunity for childhood vaccinations."

He says the response and behaviour of Omicron has varied from country to country, and at this point there is a lot to work through.

"We're still dealing with a virus that's very unpredictable ... we'll work as hard as we can to give them answers as quickly as we can."

Hipkins says he does not want to get ahead of the Cabinet meeting happening later today on whether Omicron precludes the possibility of any regions moving to green.

Opposition criticises govt for late-night announcement online

Hipkins' National Party counterpart Chris Bishop said the decision to delay was "banana republic stuff" and showed the government had been asleep at the wheel over summer.

"The government has basically closed the border without so much as a ministerial press release. Instead, a million Kiwis found out there would be no more MIQ room releases through a message posted on the MIQ website and tweeted late at night by the MBIE account.

"This is no way to run a border, let alone a country."

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National Party Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In the media stand-up today, Hipkins rejected the suggestion that the government has been "on holiday", saying teams have been working hard to get plans in place to deal with Omicron in the community, including working with business representatives and community organisations.

On the other hand, Bishop said New Zealanders deserved a "proper plan" from the government in light of Omicron.

"We were told in November last year that the border reopening to Australia was locked in for January. Then it was pushed back to the end of February. Now it has been pushed out indefinitely.

"To make matters worse, the government has succeeded in its delaying tactics to the Grounded Kiwis court case challenging MIQ."

ACT leader David Seymour said the government was either unprepared for Omicron, or was prepared and keeping it a secret.

David Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"We've literally had a government on holiday while even press releases are not going directly to journalists, just being put on a website late at night, it's an extraordinary situation.

"Omicron, like Delta, is a whole new virus on steroids. The old strategies of locking down and locking up will not work, they won't stop spread, they won't stop it getting through the border, what we do need to do is protect the vulnerable.

"We are not setting new rules of the game that will allow New Zealanders to get on in a functioning society while Omicron inevitably spreads and those truly vulnerable are protected."

What was being done now was futile, he said, calling for an acceptance that Omicron would arrive and saying the cost of the attempt to delay it outweighed the benefits.

"Not just on people stuck overseas but on New Zealanders in different industries that depend on people being able to come here. I don't think the benefits outweigh the costs anymore.

"We cannot afford - with the cost of living the way it is and the supply chain crisis that's already affecting the world - to have empty shelves and businesses absolutely decimated by a shortage of workers.

"I think it's time to start letting people home isolate and start with medical professionals who we're going to need because our hospital programme is under so much pressure. We shouldn't have delayed the home isolation for people coming from Australia back in December."

He said he would bet that Omicron would be in the community before the end of February, and "all of these delays and dithering and delaying of skipping MIQ and opening the border that every other party has gone along with will be misery for nothing".

'They're just prolonging the inevitable' - NZer stuck overseas

Meanwhile, a New Zealander stuck overseas with an expiring visa, said the government had turned its back on New Zealanders suffering overseas.

Bradleigh Harries has been in Canada since 2020, and missed out six times in the MIQ lottery before the pause.

They said having no visa also meant no income and no healthcare, and the government's decision did not make sense.

"Covid isn't going anywhere, they're just prolonging the inevitable which is it will get in and it will become a part of everyday life... it's done that everywhere else in the world and the rest of the world has moved on," Harries said.

They said the government's treatment of stranded expats was "barbaric" and questioned whether it was taking into consideration the effects the MIQ system has had on the mental health of people in similar predicaments to theirs.

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