Shielded from COVID-19: Looking back on a year of hotel quarantine in New Zealand, half-a-billion dollars later

The system of hotels that's shielded us from COVID-19 is now a year old. 

Having accommodated more than 130,000 returnees and served up 9.1 million meals and snacks, the Government is marking the one year anniversary of the establishment of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). 

Of the $1.73 billion set aside to operate MIQ until June 2022, $451.8 million had been spent from July 2020 to March 2021. That doesn't include costs incurred by other agencies involved such as the Defence Force, police and the Ministry of Health.

The facilities were an unprecedented response to an unprecedented threat: coronavirus. The need for large-scale accommodation quickly became apparent in late March 2020 when the border was closed and Kiwis flooded home. 

"Fifteen hotels were quickly contracted in Auckland," says Megan Main, one of the joint heads of MIQ, reflecting on the past year's COVID-19 response. 

"By April 9, when the Prime Minister announced managed isolation was compulsory, we had 18 hotels to house returning Kiwis. We now have 32 facilities, across five regions, with an operational capacity of 4500 rooms, supporting up to 6200 returnees over a 14 day period."

In the beginning, MIQ was managed by the Ministry of Health. In July 2020, it became an entire business unit within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which is overseeing a budget of almost $2 billion. 

"The past year has been one of continuous learning, evolving and improving as the global situation developed and more was learned about the virus," says Main. 

"There was no playbook for this - we've been building this plane while we've been flying it - often responding to very volatile and unpredictable circumstances."

The Defence Force became an ongoing part of MIQ on August 20, 2020.
The Defence Force became an ongoing part of MIQ on August 20, 2020. Photo credit: Getty

She acknowledges things haven't always gone smoothly. 'Absconders', she says, became a "new and unfortunately more familiar term" in the national lexicon after multiple breaches. 

Brigadier Jim Bliss, who has been in his role for nearly four months after taking over from Air Commodore Darryn Webb, says MIQ has grown into a massive logistical exercise.

"Over the past 12 months we've developed consistent, documented procedures and training, improved security systems like the CCTV upgrade, ongoing enhancement of our infection, prevention and control protocols as well as designing a bespoke voucher booking system and developing exemption and emergency allocation processes."

MIQ is now going into its next phase with quarantine-free travel with Australia opening on April 19 and vaccines increasingly available in New Zealand and overseas. 

Below is a timeline of MIQ's evolution.

February 2020

  • The first case of COVID-19 in New Zealand was announced on February 28. 
  • New Zealanders in the coronavirus epicentre at the time, the Chinese city Wuhan, were repatriated and stayed at a temporary isolation facility at Whangaparoa. 

March 2020

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand would close its border to everyone except citizens and residents. 
  • International travellers were at first asked to self-isolate, and from March 26, they stayed at the Novotel Ellerslie. 

April 2020

  • Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield issued an order on April 9 requiring all people entering New Zealand by air to enter managed isolation and quarantine. 
  • The first 18 MIQ facilities opened at midnight. 

June 2020

  • MIQ was expanded with new facilities in Rotorua, Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland. 
  • Housing Minister Megan Woods and Air Commodore Darryn Webb were given responsibility for overseeing MIQ on June 19.

July 2020

  • Responsibility for MIQ was shifted from the Ministry of Health to MBIE, with deputy secretary Megan Main appointed to co-lead with Air Commodore Webb. 
  • By that time, 31 MIQ facilities were operating. 
  • After a series of security breaches with returnees "absconding" from the facilities, a permanent police presence at each facility was deployed along with additional security staff.
  • The Bay Plaza in Wellington became the 32nd and so far last MIQ facility, on July 14. 

August 2020

  • The Government introduced a charging system for MIQ on August 11 - before then, the Government had covered all the costs. 
  • The Defence Force became an ongoing part of MIQ on August 20, with an additional 500 personnel taking the total to about 900. 
  • Additional security systems were rolled out across MIQ facilities on August 20, including improved CCTV and electronic access systems. 

September 2020

October 2020

  • The Government introduced a booking system on October 5. Travellers were legally required to have a MIQ voucher before flying to New Zealand. 

November 2020

  • Chris Hipkins became COVID-19 Response Minister after Labour was re-elected to power in the October election. 

December 2020

  • New COVID-19 variants were identified overseas, leading to fears it could spread to New Zealand. 
  • Brigadier Jim Bliss took over as new co-leader of MIQ with Megan Main. 

January 2020

  • In the wake of new variants reaching New Zealand, the Government introduced mandatory pre-departure tests before flying to New Zealand, as well day zero tests in MIQ, for all arrivals except for low-risk countries including Australia, Antarctica and some Pacific nations. 
  •  The Government also reviewed MIQ after a Northland woman tested positive for COVID-19 after leaving the Auckland facility she was accommodated at. 
  • MIQ was reviewed to keep returnees coming from the same flights together and separate from returnees who may be at a different stage of their isolation. The ventilation was also reviewed. 
  • The first of 2000 Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers entered MIQ on January 17. 
  • Quarantine-free travel from the Cook Islands to New Zealand began on January 21. 

February 2021

  • The first MIQ workers received their COVID-19 vaccinations on February 21.

March 2021

  • The first MIQ workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with two shots of Pfizer, were announced. 
  • Quarantine-free travel from Niue to New Zealand began on March 24. 

April 2021

  • The Government imposed a temporary two-week ban on all travellers from India in the wake of increasing cases of COVID-19 in MIQ. 
  • A security guard at the Grand Millennium in Auckland tested positive for COVID-19 on April 8. He was not vaccinated after missing two appointments.