Coronavirus: MIQ system plagued by company using false passports for bookings as stranded expats await overhaul

By Katie Todd, RNZ

While thousands of stranded New Zealanders pin their hopes on an imminent MIQ announcement, the lobby system for bookings is already being gamed by a third party group.

A company is using false passport numbers to secure vouchers for returnees who pay $270 - to the frustration of others who've missed out.

Marine engineer Andrew Black became stuck in Perth after a work trip to Australia in December, and said it was "unbelievable" he had to compete against fake accounts.

He hoped he would have a fair chance to return home and see his wife when MIQ scrapped its old first-come-first-served booking system - but has managed no closer than number 14,000 in the queue using the new randomised lobby system.

In messages posted online, the company MIQ Booking explains it can add several passengers per booking, with false passport numbers, to secure multiple spots in the queue.

MIQ Booking - who could not be reached for comment - claimed it would give people a better chance of a spot.

"You don't want to know what I think of people that are doing that to New Zealanders that are so desperate to get home. To be profiting off people's misery is just despicable," Black said.

The advocacy group Grounded Kiwis said it was understandable returnees were going to desperate lengths.

It has obtained figures under the OIA showing low success rates among people who tried to get last-minute emergency MIQ rooms between 1 July and 6 September.

There were 50 applications from people who said they were terminally ill with a life expectancy of less than six months and wanted to reunite with family - just four of them got a booking.

Among 533 applications from New Zealanders who said they could no longer legally remain in their current location and urgently had to return, just 29 were granted.

In that latter category is Rotorua man Peter Woods, who is stuck in China where his work permit and visa has expired, and he is now on his second 30-day humanitarian visa.

He has missed out on every virtual lobby room release and a bid for emergency allocation, but fears there will be serious repercussions if he can't leave in a matter of days.

"Obviously its a tough process here with their rules. I don't know how long this is going to carry on for but obviously you can go into detention or prison," he said.

"My frustration is its been three months now. I've finished my work visa here so how long do I just keep surviving without working?"

Yesterday, a raft of changes to the MIQ system were expected to be unveiled on the 1pm podium - potentially freeing up more capacity for returning New Zealanders.

Ministers now expect to make that announcement today.

Grounded Kiwis wants fully vaccinated travellers who test negative to have the option of home isolation.

Spokesperson Martin Newell said making every returnee stay in a hotel for 14 days just didn't make sense anymore.

"You've got more chance of catching Covid at a cafe in Auckland than in Sydney these days. The response needs to take into account the risk... to decide what sort of isolation you get," he said.

"The whole MIQ system is not fit for purpose. We need a new process to enable people to return and we need it now."

Any changes can't come fast enough for Rivka Hobden who is fully vaccinated and travelling home from Melbourne via MIQ on Sunday.

She believes home isolation would make much more sense than 14 days in a hotel.

"It's ridiculous. Absolutely totally ridiculous especially as at home, I have an empty house waiting for me," she said.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said ministers met yesterday afternoon to work through 'further details' and complexities before they make a formal announcement about the MIQ changes.

In the meantime Joint Head of MIQ Megan Main said officials were changing the passport entry requirements for the virtual lobby to prevent people using fake details.

In a statement she said there had been a number of "checks and verifications" after each lobby event, to identify any fake passport numbers used in bookings.

"Anyone who uses a fake passport number to book a space in MIAS has breached the Terms of Use and their voucher will be cancelled. We have not seen widespread use of fake details in any of the lobby events," she said.

"The changes will be detailed on our website in due course."