COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern's message to MIQ guests as unpaid invoices reach $20 million

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is asking managed isolation guests to "do the right thing" as the amount of unpaid invoices reaches $20 million. 

New figures show just a third of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) guests have paid for their stay. The data, accurate to March 7, shows 3520 of 9078 invoices have been paid, leaving $20 million outstanding. 

The fees scheme was introduced on August 11 to temper criticism that taxpayers were footing the bill for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders choosing to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Everyone entering New Zealand, save for a few exemptions, must spend two weeks in MIQ. Those who travel overseas and return within 90 days pay $3100 for their stay, which will increase to $5520 in late March. 

Invoices are due to be paid within 90 days. Some guests still have time to pay, a MIQ spokesperson told Newshub. But a total of 956 invoices are currently overdue with a value of $3,257,115. 

"I think people should pay," Ardern said on Thursday. "Ultimately, we have been asking New Zealanders to limit their movements because it's unsafe. For those who are taking up the privilege to be able to leave and then return safely, we ask them to do the right thing and to pay."

She said the Government has ways to ensure invoices are paid, similar to how student loan defaulters trying to leave the country can be arrested. 

"We have mechanisms, particularly using the border, in order to collect where people haven't paid. If people do leave the country it's on return that we are able to seek payment of any unpaid debt owed to the Government, so similar to the student loan regime."

Legislation introduced in 2014 gave Inland Revenue the power to apply for arrest warrants for student loan defaulters trying to leave the country. Arrests are warranted under the Student Loan Scheme Act 2011, section 162a. 

"For collection, which of course is important to us - I mean ultimately this is taxpayer money and we are as a country subsidising the quarantine regime - the border is one way that we do collect in the same way around student loans," Ardern said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government is getting advice on whether to stop people leaving New Zealand if they haven't paid their MIQ fees. 

"I'm getting some advice on that. It may be that we need some primary legislation in order to be able to do that so a law change through Parliament," he told reporters. 

"At this point I haven't got evidence to suggest it's a widespread problem but even a few people leaving would be something that I would regard as unacceptable so we're very much looking at that at the moment."

Hipkins said he's "looking at how we can tighten up" the payment system, in light of the data showing $20 million in outstanding invoices. 

"The majority of money is still being collected within the 90 days but having a degree of invoices outstanding like that, that is something we need to do more to chase that up," he said. 

"We've got to remember the variety of circumstances that people might come into the country. They might not be in a position to pay up-front. It is handled separately from the hotels so we pay the hotels and then we invoice the people who stay there. 

"But certainly the invoices should be issued more or less immediately after someone has completed their stay in MIQ."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

A police spokesperson told Newshub they can arrest anyone with an existing arrest warrant. If someone gets a border alert against their name, police can be alerted to it by Customs.

"Other instances of police interacting with people at the border can include police being required to enforce a court order such as a custody arrangement which may prevent a parent from taking their child out of the country."

The MIQ spokesperson said reminders are sent out 30 days before the due date to alert returnees to the invoice including details of how to pay, how to apply for an instalment plan, and what to do if they believe they are not liable or are exempt.

"After the due date a further letter will be sent requesting payment. This letter will also contain details about how to apply for an instalment plan."

If the person doesn't pay, MIQ has options to engage a debt collection agency or initiate court action. 

"This decision will be made applying a consistent set of factors and would only occur after 180 days from when the invoice was issued." 

As of last week, no one had been referred to debt collection, as the first unpaid invoices have only come up for consideration at the end of February.

"The regulations in their current form do not empower us to stop people leaving the country if they have not paid their MIQ charges."