Returnees devastated after slow COVID test lab processing traps 80 in MIQ hotel

A top medical director says an incident where a group of returnees were refused exit from a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) hotel in because COVID tests weren't returned in time is due to the mounting pressure on labs he's been warning about for weeks.

The returnees were due to leave Rydges Rotorua on Wednesday and Newshub understands many were left in tears after being informed they couldn't exit when scheduled.

Under current MIQ rules, returnees must spend at least 10 days in a Government-approved hotel and receive COVID-19 tests on arrival, day three, day five or six and day eight or nine. The day eight or nine tests are the swabs used to determine if the returnee is able to leave the MIQ facility after 10 days. 

Returnee Henry Dillon, who hasn't seen his family for two years, says Defence Force personnel were up all night breaking the news to fellow returnees.

"They've told me that they've had people that have just broken down and cried," Dillon told AM.

He said he struggled to sleep after being told he couldn't leave on time.

"I know there are a lot of really frustrated people here... it's very, very tense."

Head of MIQ Chris Bunny said every precaution needed to be taken - as one returnee tested positive for COVID-19 on day five of their stay. Therefore, the returnees couldn't leave until the negative tests were returned, he said.

In an update on Wednesday afternoon, a MIQ spokeswoman confirmed the group had since received their test results - all of which were negative - and were able to leave.

New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science president Terry Taylor said labs were already under the pump - despite the country only being in the early stages of its Omicron outbreak.

 "It's just the reality of putting a service under amazing stress that they've never seen before," he told Newshub. "It's pretty tough for the guys up there in the Bay of Plenty with the outbreak there and it's only going to get worse for them.

"We're no different than any other health service in New Zealand... we were barely able to cope before the pandemic came so you can just imagine the stress the staff are under at the moment.

"There's no excuse for waiting six days for a PCR result - I think that's clear for everyone to see but... we will always prioritise what's the most important."

Predictions from COVID-19 modellers New Zealand could see tens of thousands of daily cases were adding to the stress, Taylor said.

"The pump that we've put under and the pressure those staff have been under for two years... as our workload goes up the delays are going to get more and more.

"We're going to see this more and more... this is a symptom of what's about to happen and it's only going to get worse - it's not going to get better."

The MIQ system is under intense scrutiny, particularly after pregnant Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis, whose emergency application for highly sought-after spot in MIQ was rejected despite informing them she would be forced to give birth in war-torn Afghanistan

Opposition parties have called for MIQ to be scrapped immediately. Instead, the Government has opted for a phased reopening of New Zealand's borders.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week announced fully vaccinated Kiwis in Australia will be able to skip MIQ from later this month in favour of isolating at home. Kiwis in other parts of the world can join them from March 14.

The border will open to anyone from Australia in July, the Government has said, and the rest of the world in Ocotber.