COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern sees 'no evidence' of bots making MIQ bookings - but do experts agree?

The system of hotels that's shielded us from COVID-19 has processed roughly 150,000 Kiwis, but with peak demand, it's struggling to keep up - and there are growing concerns that bots are gaming the system. 

As the borders are closed, anyone entering New Zealand needs to book a two-week spot in one of 31 state-run managed isolation and quarantine facilities, or MIQ. The problem is, it's currently fully booked through to November, and Newshub has seen offers made to people to cheat the system.

The offer made to one would-be traveller says rather than trawling the website for hours every day, they get people's profiles set up and then when the block release of dates happens for future months, spaces are secured immediately for their customers. 

The other way to book spots, according to an expert Newshub spoke to, is through bots - computer programmes that check web pages to see if there have been any changes, and if so, it will tell the programme to take action. 

In the case of booking MIQ spaces, it'll fill in any required links or boxes, and book in the next immediately available room. This is raising the most concern, as the 'bots' are making it near impossible for others to compete with. 

Dr Andrew Chen of the Centre for Informed Futures, an independent think-tank and research centre founded at Auckland University, says wherever there's scarce resource through a website, a standard set of technologies can be applied to trick the system. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern doesn't seem too worried about it. 

"We see no evidence that bots are able to actually make the bookings. You cannot automate the booking process. The individual still needs to go on and make the booking themselves, provide their details, and physically be a part of the booking process," she said on Tuesday. 

"We have put in place processes to stop any automated way of being able to make that booking. Of course I would say though, for everyone who's currently trying to come into New Zealand, we are in a congested period, whereas only a few months ago, we had spaces."

But Dr Chen says it's probably happening. 

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

"I think her comments were probably with regards to it being organised and at a large scale in terms of using bots, and that's probably not happening," he told Newshub. 

"People have been able to automate the process of refreshing the page and then once an allocation becomes available, to automatically enter their booking details.

"This is pretty standard. Most people with a technical background would know how to do it or be able to figure out how to do it if they wanted to. These are similar sorts of techniques used to get tickets, for example, for concerts and that sort of thing, when they're being released."

MIQ is run by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), and Dr Chen says the problem could be helped by running checks on how long it takes for a user to enter their details. If it's too quick, then it should raise red flags. 

"But they also don't want to accidentally reject a valid person's booking just because of automated checks, so they have to be very careful there."

He said an alternative is to have a call centre, but it would be costly and inefficient, with people having to sit on hold for long periods of time. Another solution could be to create a prioritisation list for people to phone up and book their slot. But Dr Chen says it would need to be done carefully, because it could create further inequities, even if it's unintentional. 

"It's certainly not easy for the Government to address this."

Dr Andrew Chen of the Centre for Informed Futures, an independent think-tank and research centre founded at Auckland University by Sir Peter Gluckman.
Dr Andrew Chen of the Centre for Informed Futures, an independent think-tank and research centre founded at Auckland University by Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo credit: Bridget Williams Books

What solutions are being considered?

Like Ardern, the joint head of MIQ, Megan Main, is adamant bots don't make bookings and that automated software refreshers still need an individual to be there to finalise it. 

"Our terms of use require a user to not share their log-in details with anyone else so it's the user who's not complying with the terms of use and where we identify these we do stop them - we do block them from using the site," she said on Wednesday. 

"We're constantly making changes to make the system as equitable as possible and this week we're making a change so that each time you refresh the page you don't need to refill your details for that booking."

Dr Chen said the ultimate solution is to create more MIQ facilities, but Main says the operation is already large and expanding it would increase the potential risk of COVID-19 spreading into the public. 

"We don't have unlimited capacity in MIQ. For us, it's our 31 facilities and so what we're trying to do is make it as equitable as possible. But when demand equals supply, we've looked at a lot of different options - various things we're working through - to see if they will help Kiwis overseas."

Main said the Government has looked at the Green Card lottery in the United States and various types of waiting list options, but each comes with ups and downs. 

Joint head of MIQ Megan Main.
Joint head of MIQ Megan Main. Photo credit: Getty

"One of the challenges with a wait list... is it pushes the problem further up the pipeline, if you like. What we don't want is a lot of people who don't need vouchers anymore because their plans have changed, staying on a wait list, which means that people appear to be waiting months for a voucher."

Another option is to link MIQ spots to flights, which is what's been done with the latest repatriation flights for Kiwis stuck in Sydney during the lockdown. 

But Main said linking MIQ spots to flights is a tricky business and can only be done in limited circumstances - not on a global scale. 

"We've set up a new process for managed returns where we are literally directing to airlines - Qantas and Air New Zealand - how many people they can put on a plane, on what date, and into what city. 

"It's quite complicated and involves hourly conversations with both airlines. If we think more globally, we've got people coming from all over the world back to New Zealand all the time through hubs through many airlines. They are commercial organisations. 

"This is sustainable for a short burst but not as a long-term solution."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says regardless of how booking allocations are done, there will be strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.

 "We could move to a system where the Government determines who can come in by allocating a set number of places to each airline, for example; we can have an on-demand system like we do through MIQ; we could have a wait list system - every one of those different systems has strengths and weaknesses.

"But we have to recognise that whatever system we're using at the moment, demand is outstripping supply."