COVID-19: ACT leader David Seymour decries new MIQ booking system as thousands sit in limbo

As more than 22,000 New Zealanders sit in limbo waiting for a room in the new managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system, ACT leader David Seymour says it's time for a rethink. 

"The demand for MIQ is now clear for the first time," Seymour said. "More than 22,000 New Zealanders in the MIQ waiting room within hours of its opening has shown why locking down and locking out is unsustainable."

National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop was equally critical, describing the new virtual lobby system as "both depressing and a debacle". 

The pause on the release of MIQ vouchers ended on Monday as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which oversees the state-run quarantine system, rolled out its new virtual lobby system. 

Joint Head of MIQ Megan Main said the lobby system was being tried out to make booking more transparent and to create a more level playing field for people trying to access the site. 

Those hoping to book a room no longer have to constantly refresh the web page, in what used to be a first-in, first-serve model. They now wait in a virtual lobby, where everyone has an equal chance of getting through to try to secure a room. 

However, there's no new hope for those who have been waiting a long time to secure a room. The lobby system picks people at random, so if you urgently need a room, the only hope is to apply for a rare emergency exemption. 

"Once the room release starts, all of the people in the lobby will be automatically moved into a queue," said Main. "This will be randomised, removing the need to be the fastest."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub

Despite MBIE's best intentions for the new and improved booking system, thousands of people have missed out on the approximately 3000 rooms available across September, October, November and December.

Screenshots of the virtual lobby waiting room have flooded social media, with many showing how there were more than 22,000 other people in the queue. 

"Despite the exorbitant price, the 14-day time cost in iso and blocking of non-citizens whose home is NZ, the demand for MIQ rooms is still wild," one person wrote on Twitter. "It's not just having an effect on Kiwis overseas... but their loved ones in NZ too."

Indeed, people aged 18 and over waiting in the virtual lobby are prepared to pay $3100 for the mandatory two-week stay in one of the state-run hotel facilities. Waivers are available in cases of undue financial hardship and other special circumstances.

"The Government needs to be more innovative and flexible to clear the MIQ backlog. Why can't double vaccinated people from low-risk countries self-isolate?" Seymour asks. 

"With every passing day, New Zealand's isolation is turning from its great strength to its greatest weakness. As the rest of the world moves on from COVID, we must be prepared to move with them.

"Under ACT's plan, owners of currently mothballed hotels could seek a licence to operate MIQ according to strict criteria."

Documents released under the Official Information Act in July showed officials had been pushing the Government to build new facilities for a year. The Government isn't ruling it out. 

Bishop says the first-in, first-served basis for MIQ needs to be changed to a prioritisation system based on points, similar to the way in which skilled migrants are assessed for eligibility for New Zealand. 

"How is it fair that someone sleeping in a car overseas with an expired visa is treated the same as someone who wants to come home to New Zealand for a holiday at Christmas time?

"There are Kiwis stuck offshore who aren't legally allowed to be in the country they're currently in, but who can't get home to New Zealand. This is an awful situation and one entirely of the Government's own creation."

National Party COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop.
National Party COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop. Photo credit: Getty Images

A waiting list has already been considered by the Government, and in July, Main said the idea came with challenges

"It pushes the problem further up the pipeline, if you like," she said. "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."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins earlier this month asked Kiwis overseas to only come home if they need to. 

"We will have further vouchers to release before the end of the year, so there will be more opportunity for people to come back before the end of the year, but, clearly, there is a lot of demand," he said. 

"So those who were hoping to have a summer holiday in New Zealand, my request of them is to leave the vouchers, to leave the room availability, to those who really need to come home and who are coming home for good. 

"Now is not a good time to come home for a holiday with the intention of returning back to where you are. We do need you to play your part by allowing those vouchers to be available for those in the greatest need."