COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins cites Omicron as justification for postponing MIQ room release

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has acknowledged that postponing the release of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) rooms is "disruptive and stressful" but necessary. 

Chris Bunny, the head of MIQ, issued a statement on Tuesday to announce that due to an "unprecedented" number of Omicron cases coming into New Zealand, the decision was made to postpone the next room release scheduled for Thursday. 

"We appreciate that this will be disappointing for many people wanting to come back to New Zealand," Bunny said, but there had been a "10-fold increase in positive COVID-19 cases at the border compared to December" which had put MIQ under pressure. 

"We are constantly assessing the needs of the people coming into the MIQ system, which means at times we may need to convert managed isolation facilities to quarantine facilities. This means a further reduction in managed isolation rooms," Bunny said. 

"Also the move to a 10-day MIQ stay just before Christmas has resulted in a reduction in overall MIQ capacity, by approximately 30 percent. 

"Vouchers for January 2022 and February 2022 were issued over the past few months based on a 7-day stay, which means we now need to carefully manage our capacity for these months. We are working hard to make sure we honour all vouchers that have been issued."

Hipkins said in a statement on Wednesday that it was not an easy decision to delay the MIQ room release. 

"There are no easy calls when managing COVID-19 and the Government recognises that while this is temporary, it will be disruptive and stressful for a number of people," Hipkins said. 

"Pausing the next MIQ lobby is a temporary position while MIQ is under extreme pressure from New Zealanders returning with Omicron. It recognises how easily Omicron spreads, despite the extra layers of protection put in place in MIQs, and will help protect New Zealanders.

"No decisions have been made on the date, sequence and conditions for the border reopening and Cabinet will consider options within the next couple of weeks based on the most up to date advice. Until then, we are not in a position to release more MIQ rooms.     

"In the meantime, our focus will be on getting booster rates up and immunising as many 5-11 year-olds as possible before Omicron takes hold in the community."

The Omicron variant, which is less severe than Delta because it does not infiltrate the lungs but still highly contagious, has sparked a string of disruptions to the Government's plans since it started emerging at MIQ. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Government in November announced that on January 17, Kiwis arriving from Australia would be able to skip MIQ and isolate at home instead. But this was delayed until the end of February due to the threat of Omicron

It's all too real for Australia where COVID-19 is once again spreading like wildfire. New South Wales reported 32,297 new cases on Wednesday and 32 deaths, while neighbouring Victoria registered 20,769 cases and 18 deaths. 

ACT leader David Seymour says there is no accountability for the Government essentially shutting the border without any warning and no fixed end date. 

"Kiwis stranded overseas had to learn their fate through an 8pm press release posted on the MBIE website by a bureaucrat - they will be livid," he said on Wednesday. 

"That's not kind. And it's not open and transparent.

"The Prime Minister will deliver propaganda from the podium when it suits, but if there's bad news, she's nowhere to be seen. There's no accountability in Jacinda Ardern's Hermit Kingdom.

"We can't go on like this. Families have been torn apart and businesses can't get workers. It's time for honesty and certainty." 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will have more to say on the Government's response to Omicron on Thursday at Labour's retreat in New Plymouth. 

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"We know that with Omicron, it is a case of when, not if, and that is why the booster campaign is just so critical," Ardern told reporters on Monday. 

She said if Omicron gets into the community, the more restrictive 'red' setting of the traffic light system will be implemented. 

"Keep in mind, that brings in gathering limits, it uses masks, social distancing, and also has special requirements on the way that hospitality operates - people must be seated and separated for instance. 

"All of those measures are all designed to try and slow down the spread of a variant like Omicron."

All regions are currently at 'orange', except for Northland which is at 'red' due to its relatively low vaccination rate of 86 percent of the eligible population. 

"We have the ability to learn from other nations and see the way that Omicron is behaving and prepare ourselves for that," Ardern said.

"That will mean altering some of the things we do, particularly on testing, isolation and contact tracing, and we'll look to share those plans over the coming weeks."