COVID-19: Government spends over $6m bringing New Zealanders stranded during pandemic home

Passengers arriving at an airport.
Passengers arriving at an airport. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Sarah Robson of RNZ

The government has spent more than $6 million bringing home New Zealanders who were stranded overseas at the start of the pandemic.

Between January and April last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade chartered several mercy flights from places like Wuhan in China, India and Peru.

The government underwrote and subsidised the charters, and passengers were charged a flat fee depending on the duration of the flight.

The total cost of the repatriation flights would be offset by those passenger contributions, MFAT said in its response to an Official Information Act request.

In an April 2020 paper, then-Foreign Minister Winston Peters' office said the charter flights would cost $1500 per person for up to four hours, $3500 for 4 to 14 hours, and $5500 for over 14 hours.

That same paper estimated it could cost up to $14 million to get New Zealanders home from high-risk countries.

All up, the government has now helped repatriate more than 6000 people from 38 countries, on charter, commercial and defence force flights.

Last year, the government chartered three flights to bring people home from India. Ten flights were also offered by Air India, and there were options for people to return on third country repatriation flights, and a commercially operated private charter flight from South India.

There have been growing calls for the government to organise more flights from India, as COVID-19 infection rates soar and the health system there is overwhelmed.

Commercial flights out of India have been cancelled or heavily restricted, causing headaches for people trying to flee.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said the lack of commercial flights was likely to be temporary, but officials are monitoring the situation.