Power Play: MIQ soon to be a thing of the past but Covid wounds run deep

6:34 am on 4 February 2022

Power Play - The festering political boil MIQ has been lanced, but despite the delight, the social and economic wounds inflicted by Covid-19 will take longer to heal.

No caption

The justification for keeping the gates closed has become less and less tenable, Jane Patterson writes. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

It's been all about the border regime this past week, building to a crescendo with the anticipation of the announcement and the Charlotte Bellis story.

MIQ, though, did its job, playing a major role in keeping case numbers, community spread and the death toll comparatively low in the last two years. The end of February had already been given as a likely timetable so everyone was keen to put a date on it; the furore after Bellis publicly and vocally made her case put the debate into overdrive.

It's unlikely all of this changed Cabinet's timetable as they had to make these decisions, but it sure would have made them even keener to get the information out there to blunt the tsunami of criticism, driven by hurt and emotion and becoming ever more valid.

There will be, of course, many people in New Zealand still quite content with remaining in the 'hermit kingdom' for some time longer, feeling a sense of protection from the closed border but the time to change-up MIQ has arrived, and the justification for keeping the gates closed has become less and less tenable.

As well as the management of the outbreak changing due to Omicron, the impact on those drafted in to run it, including the police and the Defence Force has been significant and won't be immediately relieved by the reopening plan.

With the acceptance Omicron's going to spread widely throughout the community - the government itself is planning for the time when New Zealand could have 50,000 cases a day - the balance tips towards opening up the border. It's still being done in a phased way to give public health officials time to prepare, and for as many people as possible to get boosted.

The health advice given is once there are a large number of Omicron cases, extras coming in through the border don't materially affect the "trajectory" of the outbreak. The key thing is the health system is geared up enough to cope, and vaccination rates are high.

We're moving back to a high trust model that New Zealand began with at the start of the pandemic; trusting people to do what they're asked to and follow the rules for self-isolation.

That didn't always happen before MIQ was put in place and police and health authorities didn't have nearly the capacity to monitor and enforce, nor will they now as we move into the next phase of the reopening. While breaches will still cause aggravation, the health risk isn't as high as it was when New Zealand was in the elimination phase, as Omicron will be actively circulating through the community already.

There will be fines of between $4000 to $12,000 for those who breach the rules and don't do what's required, and high expectations from the rest of the community that people arriving from other countries will do their bit.

However, the border won't be thrown open completely and things will not return to pre-pandemic times. A core MIQ capacity will be retained; it'll still be needed for unvaccinated New Zealanders and may also need to be geared up if other variants emerge from high risk countries, or other developments that would require going back to a more cautious approach. Based on ministers' language, however, MIQ as we have known it will be a thing of the past.

Pullman Hotel in Auckland. Managed isolation facility.

MIQ as we have known it for almost two years will be a thing of the past. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The border reopening plan has been changed and pushed back a number of times as New Zealand responded to Delta and then Omicron, however, after two years of such anxiety and upheaval the prime minister says the dates that have been released will stick. There will be ongoing reviews but Jacinda Ardern says that will be more focused on nailing down specific dates, for example, entry for anyone from Australia and for visa waiver travel tagged at present for sometime in July - which she says could happen sooner.

The allowances for eligible 'skilled workers' in mid-March and then up to 5000 international students about a month later will help ease those particular pressure points, and blunt the criticisms from business and the education sector about the impact the (largely) closed border has had.

Not everyone's happy though; some tourism operators say the required isolation period will put people off coming to visit, and the dairy industry maintains that the requirement for skilled workers to be paid one and a half times the median wage will be a barrier to getting the workers they need.

National's welcoming the confirmed border plan; they have to really as this is basically what they've been calling for - just with a slightly delayed timetable. However, even with the border winching open there will be plenty to scrutinise: the availability of rapid antigen tests, the public health response including hospital and ICU capacity and the ongoing recovery - not just the fundamentals of the economy but how individuals and businesses are faring with the sky-rocketing cost of living, and how highly impacted sectors, like tourism, fare.

Poverty and inequality were already a major problem for the government and New Zealand before the pandemic, and that has only worsened for many. While the unemployment rate is historically low, there are many families doing it hard, exacerbated by the disproportionate impacts on the job market, extreme house prices and those higher costs of other essentials like food and petrol.

Labour has said this is a chance for a "reset", to strive for a "high wage, low carbon" economy - but it's hard to see how every New Zealander will be in the position to benefit.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs