Coronavirus: Greens join National in calling for purpose-built MIQ facilities

The Greens have thrown their support behind calls for a purpose-built managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility, saying it's looking like the pandemic is going to drag on for longer than initially thought. 

The current system of using converted hotels has been stretched to its limits with the recent Delta outbreak. More have been turned into quarantine facilities for confirmed cases and close contacts, and capacity in others has been reduced to cut down the chance of infected people passing on the virus. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday urged Kiwis based overseas planning to visit home over summer to stay away, pausing the release of new spots

"We are asking Kiwis abroad to play their part in this response by being patient," he said, to allow those coming home to live - or for emergency reasons - to secure spots. 

"Leave the vouchers and room availability to those who really need to come home, and are coming home for good."

Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter told The AM Show the first thing the Government could do is to prioritise Kiwis over "international competitors in sports" and "Government employees going overseas and coming back from an expo in Dubai". She'd earlier tweeted it was "pretty rough" for Kiwis overseas, singling out "international athletes" and "film crews". 

"I totally understand we have to prioritise the safety of New Zealand. But at the same time in the last few months we've just been inundated with stories of people living overseas who are in really difficult circumstances who cannot get back to New Zealand because of the difficulties and shortages in MIQ."

She said with the "way the pandemic is going, given the way the travel bubble has had to be suspended, it's possible we are going to need more MIQ facilities for longer than people might have thought or hoped".

"It's really important that the Government takes its responsibility to New Zealand citizens overseas seriously. They need to be able to come home. It's a right, it's in the first page of their passport that they have the right to come back here."

The National Party has been calling for a purpose-built MIQ facility since February. COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has argued it should also be outside of Auckland, to reduce the risk of a leak forcing the city - or entire country - into lockdown. 

"A purpose-built facility may prove expensive but its cost will be dwarfed by the economic hit of putting Auckland into more lockdowns," he said at the time, after a border worker caught the virus, plunging the city into level 3. 

It's believed the current outbreak was seeded into Auckland by a traveller from New South Wales through MIQ. 

The Opportunities Party first called for dedicated MIQ facilities last year

The idea has the backing of epidemiologists and public health experts like Nick Wilson and Michael Baker. Dr Wilson this week told RNZ existing hotels are not fit-for-purpose.

"We really, as a country, need to be moving to what Australia is doing and building purpose-built facilities which are single storey separate units like they have in Howard Springs in Australia, and all very good ventilation."

Documents released under the Official Information Act in July showed officials had been pushing the Government to build new facilities for a year. 

Julie Anne Genter.
Julie Anne Genter. Photo credit: The AM Show

While Genter said it's "most important to focus on what can be done now", she said now that it was clear the battle against COVID-19 was going to be a long one, the Government should look into dedicated MIQ facilities outside of Auckland, as well as "ensuring that we have sufficient places so that we can keep people safe and Kiwis living overseas can come home".

"The Government needs to understand what the demand is. At the moment I don't think they have any idea how many New Zealanders are trying to come home or for what reasons. The way the MIQ booking system was set up, people just had to sit at home and press 'refresh' over and over again and hope that places came up. 

"There's been a reduction in spaces available in the last six months due to really important safety policies, but now I think now the Government needs to think very clearly, well, if there is a period of high demand and we have had to reduce the places in the facilities we have, then we do have to try and make more facilities available."

The Government hasn't ruled it out.