COVID-19: How National's proposal to fix 'broken' MIQ system compares to Government's solution

It's widely accepted that the state-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system is under pressure, with some Kiwis stuck overseas unable to secure a room - but what is the solution? 

With the border closed, anyone entering New Zealand needs to book a two-week spot in one of 31 MIQ facilities. The problem is it's fully booked, and the Government paused new bookings to make room for COVID-19 cases going into quarantine. 

It's led to tragic stories, like that of Vicky Edwards, who's stuck in Canada and has been battling to get a MIQ spot to see her mum. The system was too slow and her mum passed away before she could say goodbye. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins knows the MIQ system is under pressure, but on Wednesday announced the pause on room vouchers would be extended for two weeks to make room at two facilities for quarantine. 

The Crowne Plaza facility, one of the largest of the group, is also out of action as investigations continue into how a Sydney traveller with COVID-19 infected someone, which led to the latest Delta outbreak. 

"I do want to acknowledge the pressure that our managed isolation system has been under in recent weeks," Hipkins told a press conference. 

"We do have a current challenge in accommodating those positive cases in our community and those who cannot isolate safely at home. 

"As a result of that, we are in the process of repurposing two further facilities to use for quarantine and for isolation of community cases, in addition to the Jet Park, which has been the mainstay of our efforts in that area so far. 

"That is putting further pressure on the network."

Hipkins touted a solution: a virtual lobby booking system. It will mean that people can be selected from an online queue randomly, removing the need to be the fastest person to hit the button to book a room. 

COVID-19 Response Minister acknowledges the MIQ system is under pressure.
COVID-19 Response Minister acknowledges the MIQ system is under pressure. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It will not fix the overall issue of supply and demand. We still have more demand than we have supply available, and in periods of high demand it is still going to be the case that we won't have rooms for everybody that wants to come home," Hipkins said. 

"But this change will make bookings more transparent and easier for people, and it will create a more level playing field for people once they're on the website. 

"Once all the rooms have been taken, the lobby will be closed and anybody in the queue will be informed that they have, unfortunately, missed out this time."

National's plan to fix 'broken' MIQ

National leader Judith Collins and COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop say it's time to fix the "festering" problems with the "broken" MIQ system. 

The pair on Thursday laid out their proposals to make it better, which include a ban on 'bots' cheating the system, a 'points' mechanism and queue waiting list, and transparency over room release dates. 

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. 

"The system should assign points to particular categories of people who could then be allocated guaranteed spaces in MIQ for a period of time once they meet the threshold for points set by the Government," he says. 

"Alongside the introduction of a points system, the Government should also introduce a waiting list for spaces, so that the system is not purely based on luck and chance."

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

National leader Judith Collins and COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop want to fix the "broken" MIQ system.
National leader Judith Collins and COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop want to fix the "broken" MIQ system. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"It pushes the problem further up the pipeline, if you like," she told a press conference. 

"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."

Main also disputed that bots are gaming the system, because automated software refreshers still need an individual to be there to finalise the booking. 

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

"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," he told Newshub. 

"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."

The managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system is run by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
The managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system is run by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Photo credit: File

What else could the Government do?

The Government could build MIQ facilities. The idea has been pushed by National since February and it has support from the Greens. It was also touted by NZ First, before they tumbled out of Parliament. 

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. Australia has done it and we could look to their experience for guidance. 

Time is of the essence, as the Christmas holidays creep up and the are fears MIQ will be too tight for people to come home to spend time with loved ones. 

Hipkins' message to Kiwis overseas: only come home if you 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."