COVID-19: MIQ space freed up for refugees, students, construction industry and seasonal workers

Managed isolation space is being freed up to allow more refugees, international students, construction workers and recognised seasonal employees (RSEs) into New Zealand. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Monday that trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel has freed up more rooms in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), which has allowed more space for critical workers. 

"We're now at the stage in our COVID response where fewer New Zealanders are choosing to come home, which gives us the opportunity to focus MIQ more on bringing in skills to support our economic recovery," Hipkins said.

"We're consistently averaging more than 10 percent of MIQ spaces set aside for economic purposes per month, which Labour promised at the election."

It will allow for about 300 RSE workers every month from June, with a total of 2400 estimated to arrive by March next year. The Government already approved 2000 RSE workers to support horticulture and viticulture during the recent summer harvest season. 

The ACT Party jumped the gun by publishing a statement at 2pm about the extra MIQ space before the announcement was made. 

The new space will also cater for the arrival of 400 international students in June for the start of semester two; 240 specialised construction workers between June and October; and 100 refugees every six weeks from July. 

The Government has also renewed border exceptions for shearers, rural mobile plant machinery operators and essential travellers to and from the Pacific. They will need to book spaces through the online MIQ system. 

"This is great news for the construction sector and will help us deliver on our strong pipeline of critical infrastructure work that will accelerate our recovery," Hipkins said. 

"It gives certainty for planning projects with specialist workers from overseas, maintains construction jobs for Kiwis and will bring new knowledge to New Zealand for employers and employees."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the dedicated spaces in MIQ and renewed border exceptions will provide horticulture and viticulture sectors with the additional workforce to support rural communities. 

It comes after National's horticulture spokesperson David Bennett said O'Connor had ignored the pleas from orchardists and businesses reliant on seasonal work to allow more seasonal workers into the country. 

Bennett said the answer was a Pacific Islands travel bubble. 

"The Pacific bubble will be the key to our $6 billion horticulture sector having enough RSE workers next season, which will also see substantial losses if the Government doesn't act."

O'Connor acknowledges the need for more RSE workers. 

"The Government and food and fibre sector have been working hard to mitigate worker shortages by training and up-skilling New Zealanders, but there is still the need for additional labour."

But there is no word yet on a wider Pacific travel bubble. Quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and the Cook Islands begins on May 17, but any plans beyond the realm countries are being kept close to the chest. 

"Our goal, of course, is let's progressively re-open to the world where it is safe to do so and where we can maintain our strategy of keeping COVID out of New Zealand," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week. 

"While we do not have complete vaccination, those are the conditions under which we consider re-opening with others."