Government's half-a-billion-dollar COVID-19 quarantine budget not enough despite charging scheme

The half-a-billion-dollars set aside to pay for the costs of the managed isolation facilities for the rest of the year will not be enough despite the Government introducing a charging system.

The COVID-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill, legislation to recover some costs for the state-run managed isolation and quarantine facilities, passed its final reading in Parliament on Wednesday.

Kiwis currently overseas will not be liable for charges if they are returning home permanently. It will only apply to those who come home for less than 90 days and those who go overseas after regulations come into force.

For a single person in a room, the proposed charge is $3100, while additional adults or children sharing that room will be charged $950 and $475 respectively - but because it only applies to some people, the charging system is expected to bring in less than $10 million.

The Government has so far covered the costs of accommodation, food, basic laundry and airport transfers with total funding of $499 million until the end of year, but forecasts now indicate more money will be required by October.

A spokesperson confirmed to Newshub: "More funding will be needed and detailed modelling work is being done to anticipate future funding requirements."

The spokesperson said the managed isolation system is currently transitioning from the Ministry of Health and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

Work is underway to create a long-term operating model for the facilities, which will inform any future funding requests, the spokesperson said. 

The Government will also allow waiver applications to be considered on a case-by-case basis, available in cases of undue financial hardship and other special circumstances. It could mean even less revenue coming to relieve taxpayers.

Newshub asked the minister in charge of managed isolation facilities, Megan Woods, if she's concerned about the amount of money coming in being even less because of the waiver scheme.

Air Commodore Darryn Webb and the minister in charge of managed isolation facilities, Megan Woods.
Air Commodore Darryn Webb and the minister in charge of managed isolation facilities, Megan Woods. Photo credit: Getty

"The fact of the matter is, if we are going to have a regime that doesn't breach the Bill of Rights, we have to have the ability to waive fees for people experiencing financial hardship. We cannot economically ration New Zealanders' ability to return home."

Dr Woods said people can apply for the waivers once regulations come into force in around mid-August. Anyone can apply for a waiver once they know they are going to be travelling to New Zealand after those regulations come into force.

The regulations are currently being finalised but it is expected those people requesting a waiver would need to make a declaration and provide information to satisfy the chief executive (CE) of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

"That would either be on undue financial hardship or that there are other special circumstances. The CE can then grant a full or partial waiver of the fees," Dr Woods said.

"Waivers are an important mechanism to assist anyone experiencing undue financial hardship or other special circumstances such as compassionate reasons.

"The assessment would need to take into consideration the individual's circumstances and be consistent with decisions made in relation to other applicants."

The CE's decision could be challenged or judicially reviewed and waivers can be granted for up to the time the payment is due, and unpaid debts would be recovered through the courts if necessary.

You can read more about the charging system here.

What about exemptions? 

The Government is also dealing with a large number of applications for compassionate exemption from managed isolation. There were 148 requests for exemptions last week, and between 10 and 15 percent of requests are approved.

"We're seeing a lot of exemption requests come in. But I want to ensure people understand that we are only approving exemptions in very limited situations," Air Commodore Darryn Webb said on Wednesday.

"I see every application and I understand the very difficult situation some people are facing. But protecting New Zealand from COVID is the basis that we make every decision on.

"This means that the majority are declined and it's important that people realise that 14 days in our facilities is our key line of defense and that they think through this before embarking on a journey home."

He said there are often requests from people to return to attend funerals or tangi - but not many of them are given the green light over fear of COVID-19 spreading in New Zealand again.

"I want to make the point early on that it's highly unlikely that they will be able to do that inside the 14-day period. It simply doesn't match up with our expectation and our assessment of the public health risk that goes with that," Webb said.

"I'd rather people know that early on and think through either managing their expectations about when they travel or whether they choose not to travel."