COVID-19: John Key and David Seymour say private MIQs the way - but how do they work overseas and are they foolproof?

Taiwan allows returnees to self-isolate at home or at one of 127 approved hotels - a policy former Prime Minister John Key and ACT leader David Seymour believe New Zealand should mimic. 

Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center collects data from and tracks individuals undergoing 14-day quarantine after entry. It's mandatory for all arrivals from overseas, with a few exceptions for business.

Airlines require travelers, both citizens and foreign nationals, to scan a QR code that directs them to fill out an online health declaration form before boarding their flights. Passengers must register with a Taiwanese number. 

Returnees are tracked through Taiwan's 'Electronic Fence System', which uses phone location data to ensure people don't leave their location. Police reportedly show up within minutes if the reception is poor or the phone runs out of battery. 

Rather than using GPS tracking, the five major telecommunication companies in Taiwan work with the government to "triangulate the location of their cell phone relative to nearby cell towers."

A failure to answer the phone can prompt authorities to send text messages such as: "Please return home immediately. Violations of home isolation/home quarantine regulations will result in fines and mandatory placement."

Those who don't comply face stiff fines ranging from NZ$470 to $47,000. 

Privacy concerns have been raised. Paul Huang, a local freelance journalist, wrote for the BBC: "When entering the border, I was only notified that my phone would be tracked and that the local township official would give me a call daily. I was not made aware of any rights I had and did not sign documents consenting to surveillance."

And the system isn't without flaws. A Taiwanese businessman was earlier this year fined more than NZ$50,000 for breaching his quarantine seven times within three days.

Returnees in Taiwan must undergo 14 days in self-isolation at home or at an approved hotel.
Returnees in Taiwan must undergo 14 days in self-isolation at home or at an approved hotel. Photo credit: Getty Images

A few months later a woman was fined more than NZ$1000 for inviting her boyfriend over to her house while she was undergoing her quarantine. This would be difficult in New Zealand facilities which are shut off from the public and patrolled by Defence Force personnel.

Japan runs a similar model of digitally tracked self-isolation or at an approved hotel for arrivals, after they've spent three days at a state-designated facility, but only after a negative test result. 

Japan is making final preparations to shorten the period of quarantine for people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 from 14 to 10 days and allow them to immediately self-isolate at home. This idea is under consideration in New Zealand. 

ACT leader David Seymour has been pushing the Government to model its COVID-19 approach on Taiwan since August last year, and former Prime Minister Sir John Key says we should listen to him. 

"As ACT leader David Seymour has been advocating, we need privately-run and purpose-built short-term MIQ facilities for workers and, in time, for tourists," he wrote in an opinion piece

This, he says, would alleviate some of the pressure on the 32 state-run managed isolation and quarantine facilities. The latest MIQ lottery room drop saw more than 20,000 people in the queue for 3000 rooms. 

"A lottery is not a public policy. It's a national embarrassment," Key wrote. 

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key wants the Government to allow privately run MIQ.
Former Prime Minister Sir John Key wants the Government to allow privately run MIQ. Photo credit: Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has argued that privately-run MIQ would put too much strain on health staff and law enforcement. 

"There are some basic provisions that we have to have in order to make quarantine work... Health staff and law enforcement are amongst them. Every health worker we remove from the system, places pressure elsewhere."

In Taiwan, returnees can use an app to report their health status daily to the chatbot and receive information about disease prevention. Returnees are sent automated SMS messages, and they can "directly reply to the messages to report their health conditions."

If a returnee gets sick in Taiwan, they can request a special 'epidemic-prevention taxi'. The drivers disinfect their vehicles after every trip and are not allowed to take other customers. Arrivals use them to travel from the airport to their self-isolation destination too. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins last week announced he had approved The Quality Hotel Elms in Christchurch as a new managed isolation facility, to help ease the MIQ bottleneck. But it only added 85 more rooms. 

"Before hotels are added to the network they must meet a rigorous safety, public health and staffing criteria," he said. "This includes appropriate ventilation, staff 'green' zones, separate entry and exit points, and CCTV capability. "

ACT leader David Seymour has been advocating for privately-run MIQ in New Zealand since August 2020.
ACT leader David Seymour has been advocating for privately-run MIQ in New Zealand since August 2020. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hipkins said MIQ will remain a critical part of our COVID-19 defence for the foreseeable future. But the Government has not indicated any intention to allow private companies to run isolation. 

"As well as bringing the new facility on board, the Government is working on medium and long term options for a sustainable and stable MIQ model. How we manage returnees will also continue to evolve, depending on vaccination rates here and overseas.

"We're progressing a pilot for a small number of fully vaccinated New Zealanders to be able to travel overseas and isolate in approved accommodation when they return, and will learn a lot from that. We are also working on alternative longer term options, and the prospect of shorter stays for fully vaccinated people.      

"Other managed isolation facility options were considered in Auckland and Rotorua but were rejected primarily because of health and MIQ workforce constraints.

"No suitable facilities were found in Hamilton and Wellington."