Coronavirus: MIQ confident 'good procedures in place' to support 'incredibly surprising' high number of minors isolating

Since last August more than 500 young people have gone through managed isolation on their own.

These children have flown into the country as unaccompanied minors and they stay in a special facility with daily checks. There is an option for under 18 year olds to have a parent or guardian stay with them, but for those staying alone it's a challenging experience that has to be carefully managed.

The youngest unaccompanied minor in MIQ was just three years old - their appointed guardian was the toddler's uncle, who was 17 years old.

Two weeks of parent-free time may sound appealing to many teens, but add isolation and frequent COVID-19 tests and it becomes an experience that can impact a young person's mental health. 

Most who've returned to do managed isolation alone are 14 to 17. There have been some younger and the total number of 505 has Government and health workers surprised. 

"It is quite a high number and it is one that I have obviously been looking into some more," says COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

"I am very surprised by the number of unaccompanied minors coming to New Zealand, incredibly surprising number actually," says Adrian Maddison of Youthline.

If a parent or guardian can't stay with them, then they go into a dedicated facility where health staff call or visit at least once a day.  

A document outlining checks health staff should make also specifies that the young person must maintain an acceptable level of hygiene in their room but that doesn't mean staff can ask them to "make their bed or pick up their clothes".

"We know social connection is really important both for adults and for young people so we make sure each of our unaccompanied minors have access to, for example, a device," says Brigadier Rose King, head of MIQ operations. 

But counselling service Youthline says young people are more susceptible to loneliness. 

"Absolutely. I think young people who don't have a lot of support are particularly vulnerable when they are in a situation where they need support," says Maddison. 

The officials running managed isolation say the support they provide is reviewed every few months and the Ombudsman visited in December to check the facilities but that report is not yet complete and wouldn't be released to Newshub in the meantime. 

"I'm confident that we've got good procedures in place to support all of the unaccompanied minors but I'm also cognisant that we can always learn," says King. 

The numbers of unaccompanied minors were highest at the beginning of the year when students may have been returning and tapered off from April when the trans-Tasman bubble opened. Still, at least 20 young people a month are staying by themselves for 14 days.

 "For young children in particular that is a long time to be in that kind of environment and making sure we've got the pastoral care there right is really important," says Hipkins. 

MIQ exemptions in general have been hard to come by and when it comes to under 18s, as yet, no unaccompanied minor has been exempt, regardless of being alone.