COVID-19: MIQ worker looks back at past 2.5 years as last facility closes its doors

It was a controversial, imperfect system that stopped more than 4600 cases of COVID-19 at the border, and late last week, Aotearoa's very first, dedicated managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility was the last hotel to finally close its doors.

Jet Park has now been returned to the hospitality sector, with an early morning whakanoa.

"From the start, this was dedicated as a quarantine facility, so it took all of the positive cases both from the border and then from other facilities as people tested positive," said head of MIQ Andrew Milne.

Iwi representatives from Tainui-Waikato blessed the space, conducting a whakanoa to remove the tapu, and amongst the crowd was Rema Erueti, who helped set up MIQ from the beginning of the pandemic.

As one of the few staff left who have been working behind the scenes of the quarantine system, Erueti has earned the gratitude of Aotearoa.

She began working for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise in 2009, and when Aotearoa went into an alert level 4 lockdown, Erueti was redeployed into a unique role never seen before in this country. She became MIQ's deputy operations director.

"It was meant to be for three weeks. I came in as part of the Temporary Accommodation Service, so it was about coming in and being able to find people somewhere to go to, to at least wait it out until they could return home," Erueti said.

Erueti was thrust into the hot seat overnight and the demands of this new job were huge.

"The director came out and he said, 'We need to find beds for 400 people tonight, go and work your magic'," Erueti said.

The notice was short and from hour to hour, they had no idea how many people to expect on arrival.

"You have people, particularly whānau from Australia, they just literally packed up everything and came home, they didn't know where they were going to. Then it was the realisation that they were in a hotel room, potentially whānau as big as six, seven, eight, and they don't know where they're going next," Erueti said.

"Mental health took a big toll, but also the diversity of people that we had coming in. And so it was clear quite early on that we needed to reach into our community for support. We needed to provide the manaakitanga."

The need to awhi and cater to a variety of different needs and requests daily was relentless and went on month after month.

"We were generally in here by 7am and then generally it was myself and the transport logistics team. We would aim to be out of here by 9-10pm. We weren't leaving until the last bus got to the hotel and the hotel confirmed that they had enough rooms. We wanted to make sure because otherwise we needed to find somewhere else," she said.

Not only was their job high pressure, but the media scrutiny was just as intense. Erueti said the constant stream of criticism posed one of the biggest challenges as they tried to do the best they could in an ever-changing environment.

Added to that, quarantine accommodation was in high demand and that created chaos.

Rema Erueti.
Rema Erueti. Photo credit: The Hui

"At that stage, we were trying to look after the whānau in our community, but that did mean that there were less beds available for the whānau wanting to return from overseas, and so the criticism from both sides was really challenging," Erueti said.

"We've had people pass away. We've had people that have come home extremely distressed because their whānau are ill. They've come home for tangi or they've come in for medical reasons. The family has been separated and they're in hospital and the other half of the whānau are left in MIQ and they've passed, and they've been on their own. And unfortunately, that wasn't just one day. It happened quite regularly.

"Everyone kind of understood our main aim is keeping our whānau safe. We would do whatever it took in order to be able to make that happen."

Those at the coalface believe that if we didn't have MIQ, the impact on our most vulnerable would have been much worse.

"We know that Māori and Pacific communities, they don't have the same health outcomes as other parts of New Zealand society, so what I've seen of some of the modelling and estimates is that giving New Zealand the opportunity to get to a high level of vaccination saved thousands of lives," Milne said.

Although Erueti's role is winding down, she can't rule out a need for MIQ in the future.

"I think there will always probably be a need for a quarantine capability, and what the past two and a bit years has taught us is that the onset can come quite quickly," she said.

"So you always will need to have a readiness plan and an understanding of your trigger points. At what point do we start looking at what's happening overseas and just start making some moves there."

It's a rollercoaster ride Erueti will never forget, and one she's been determined to see through right to the very end.

"You don't often get to see through or follow through something that you've started. So I think that's one of the things I'm going to be really proud of. You sometimes actually have to sit back and think, I was a part of that. I was a part of it from day one, and I'm going to be here to turn the lights out as well, which is pretty cool."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and the Public Interest Journalism Fund.