Coronavirus: Former National minister Maurice Williamson labels MIQ booking system 'disaster' as son tries to get home

A former National Party minister and Consul-General in Los Angeles has described the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) booking system as a "disaster" as he struggles to get his son back to New Zealand. 

Maurice Williamson appeared on The AM Show on Tuesday, disappointed that his son hasn't been able to attain a slot in MIQ while Kiwis who went to New South Wales before COVID re-emerged there and the bubble popped are being brought back and given a room at no cost.

"It's just bizarre. My son left New Zealand to do a tennis scholarship in the United States, went to college in South Carolina, waited to graduate in May," the former minister said. 

"When he was last in New Zealand in May 2019, he had never heard of Wuhan, or a wet market... You can't say 'you knew when you went away', he didn't. But he can't get home and can't get a slot."

Williamson said he and his wife are continuously refreshing the booking system, hoping a slot may come up.

"Every now and then a date may come up, every now and then, very rarely, but it won't be the right date as we only have flights coming in from California on a Monday and Thursday," he told The AM Show.

"What is really going to trick people in the future if they have booked a Monday or Thursday later on is Air NZ is changing its schedule to two different days. So they have got a slot, now it won't work for those flights."

He said it's "an absolute disaster" and knows of many others struggling to get home. 

"Because of the tennis scholarship, people I have connection with - and having been Consul-General up there for several years - I now have that many people phoning me in tears. They can't get their kids home," he said.

"I would say I am dealing with 15-20 families at present who have got young kids, the mental health stress on them alone is shocking."

Currently, there are 2587 rooms allocated of the 4000 normally available. Over the next 14 days, the number allocated will peak at 3086.  A large number of rooms in MIQ are left empty as "contingency" while capacity has also been affected by maintenance underway at several facilities and the cohorting system.

A MIQ spokesperson told Newshub that demand for space "is always high".

"The reality is that there is finite capacity within the MIQ system. During a pandemic, and where demand is high, people may not be able to travel at the exact time that suits them," they said.

"We want to be able to bring everyone home who wants to return but we have to do that in a safe, managed way. For New Zealand, that number is around 4,000 rooms a fortnight. That’s more rooms per-capita than Australia has.

"During April and May we had a sustained period of lower demand where spaces were available for many weeks."

The spokesperson said the booking system has "performed extremely well".

"The problems that are being identified reflect a demand vs supply problem. Unfortunately, in periods of high demand, some people will miss out on securing a MIQ voucher, regardless of the system that is used.

"For people overseas who have been unable to secure a voucher via the Managed Isolation Allocation System and need to travel urgently, they are able to apply for an emergency allocation."

Williamson said he has no issue with people returning to New Zealand from Australia getting a slot or others who have come to Aotearoa on exemption, but believes Kiwis who ventured overseas before the pandemic began should be prioritised.

"Some of the people listening to this will be saying 'he doesn't want us to go on holiday to Australia', I am fine with all that, I am fine with the Wiggles as long as they are after you get the New Zealanders who are desperate to come home."

The MIQ spokesperson said people overseas "are not competing with people from NSW for rooms". 

"When quarantine-free travel was announced, an additional 500 rooms per fortnight (on top of our usual contingency of 400) were set aside. This was to manage any potential changes to quarantine-free travel and provide additional capacity in the event that some travellers need to go into MIQ at very short notice."

When COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was asked about the issue of capacity in May, he said the window of opportunity for some travellers to get back may only last the winter.

"It's possible as we head towards summer... that demand will go up again. My message to Kiwis abroad is if you really do want to guarantee you can come home, now is good."

More than 150,000 people have come to New Zealand via MIQ. Since March, it's hosted 33,000, with 7800 last month.