More than 100 requests for compassionate leave from state-run managed isolation facilities have flooded in after the Government allowed it again.
The Government is allowing compassionate leave from the facilities again after putting it on hold last month after two COVID-19-carrying sisters had been allowed to leave an Auckland facility without being tested first.
That was despite new rules introduced on June 9 that people in the facilities needed to be tested at days three and 12, and that a negative result was required for the day 12 test before people were allowed to leave.
It became known as the "border botch-up" and the Government responded by not allowing anyone to leave the facilities for compassionate leave - until now.
"The exemptions process for people leaving managed isolation early in certain circumstances is now operational. Seven people have been granted exemption in the last week," the minister in charge of managed isolation, Megan Woods, said on Wednesday.
"We paused the exemptions process so a more robust system could be put up," Dr Woods said. "There are a number of criteria; one of those is around compliance and ensuring that there is adherence to a strict set of rules."
Dr Woods said the Government recognises there are some circumstances in which compassionate leave should be allowed, but "they are just that... exceptional circumstances".
Air Commodore Darryn Webb said in the last week 138 inquiries for compassionate exemption have come in, largely medical in nature.
"We've developed an end-to-end transport and compliance system. We think the system effectively balances the need to ensure that COVID doesn't spread in the community against a very real and unique set of circumstances that face every day New Zealanders coming home.
"Conditions of release are central to managing the public health and safety risk and we have resources in place to ensure these conditions are met and any follow-up isolation requirements are adhered to."
He said the Government expects to go live with a new website and application form in the next fortnight. Returnees can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to apply for an exemption.
"The focus will be on ensuring that people have good information upfront about whether they might meet the very limited conditions to be considered for an exemption prior to making any decision about travel," Webb said.
"Fourteen days in managed isolation continues to be the most important first-line of defense, so regardless of anyone's personal view that they can stay at home, for example, that's not the view held for public safety."
Dr Woods said demand for compassionate exemption may go up but they will be scrutinised.
"There is a threshold that has to be met and that is about recognising there are a handful of individuals that do have very exceptional circumstances that for some reason for other may need to be released before the 14 days," she said.
"One of the things that has changed is that you won't necessarily be released early. It may be you're released to, for example, go and visit a loved one who is dying but then come back to the facility."
So far, 30,475 New Zealanders have returned home and gone through the facilities since March 26. There are 32 facilities across five regions, and Dunedin has been ruled out as a new location.
Webb said because the Government is now "close to exhausting" the nationwide available capacity, airlines will soon be expected to align incoming passenger with available isolation facilities.
The Ministry of Transport is working with airlines to amend their licenses to allow for a rolling two-week quota over a specified period for each airline which will align demand to supply.
It has now been more than 80 days since the last case of COVID-19 was acquired locally in New Zealand from an unknown source.