COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins defends MIQ amid backlash over pregnant journo Charlotte Bellis' refused entry to New Zealand

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is urging people not to "lose sight of the reason MIQ was set up" following the controversial decision to reject a pregnant journalist's request to come home. 

"While MIQ has had to make some difficult choices, I don't want us to lose sight of the reason MIQ was set up in the first place," Hipkins said in a written statement on Monday. 

"It has served New Zealand exceptionally well, saved lives and hospital admissions and kept our health system from being swamped, unlike the situation in many other countries."

His comments came after Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis, who reported on the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan for Al Jazeera, was denied a spot in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) and now fears having to give birth in the war-torn state. 

Bellis, who was based in Qatar's capital Doha where Al Jazeera is headquartered, was forced to resign and leave the country in November after discovering she was pregnant, because it's illegal there to have sex while not married. 

The Government at the time announced that New Zealand would allow self-isolation for returning citizens at the end of February and foreigners from the end of April, so Bellis booked flights for her and her Belgian partner to return for the birth in May. 

The couple spent time in Belgium, but Bellis could only stay temporarily, because New Zealanders can only spend three of every six months in the Schengen zone and she had eaten through half of that by the time January came around.

With New Zealand closed, the only place the couple had visas to live was Afghanistan, where they currently reside. Bellis reached out to senior Taliban members who gave assurances that her marital status would not be a problem. 

But Bellis wanted to return to New Zealand because, according to the United Nations, an extra 50,000 women will die during childbirth in Afghanistan by 2025 because of the state of maternity care. 

Her plans to return home were disrupted when the Government announced that self-isolation for returnees had been postponed due to the Omicron threat

Bellis applied for an emergency allocation MIQ voucher on January 24 under category 1a(i) which applies to New Zealand citizens or residents requiring access to time-critical medical treatment. But the date she requested - February 27 - was not within the 14-day window required for an emergency allocation so she did not meet the criteria. 

Bellis received a response inviting her to reapply within the 14-day window, and to contact MIQ if she intended to change her flights. But Bellis says flights are difficult to get out of Kabul and she had already provided 59 documents explaining why she needed an emergency spot. 

The journalist's struggle to get home has sparked backlash around the world. CNN's chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward said the situation made her "blood boil for Charlotte and all the other pregnant New Zealanders who have been forbidden to return home". 

Hipkins defended the hard border policy. 

"I want to be clear, there is a place in MIQ for people with special circumstances like Ms Bellis. No one's saying there is not," he said in his written statement. 

"I understand she wanted to return on a specific date and that officials reached out to her for more information shortly after looking at her application. The emergency allocation criteria includes a requirement to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days. 

"Ms Bellis indicated she did not intend to travel until the end of February and has been encouraged by MIQ to consider moving her plans forward.

"I understand officials have also since invited her to apply for another emergency category. I encourage her to take these offers seriously.

"I also understand she was offered New Zealand consular assistance twice since she returned to Afghanistan in early December but has not responded. Again, I encourage her to take up any offers of assistance."

Chris Bunny, the head of MIQ, said Bellis had been invited to apply for another emergency allocation category (1a(iii)) for "New Zealand citizens and residents who are in a location or situation where there is a serious risk to their safety and their only option is to return to New Zealand". 

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

Bellis wrote on Twitter that MIQ already knew her situation. 

"The cause for my return continues to be the need for time-critical medical treatment that is unavailable to our circumstances or inaccessible in our current location," she wrote in a response to MIQ, which she shared with the public. 

"You have all our information. You know our situation. I want it on the record that there is no change in our circumstances, no new evidence or information you have received.

"If you are not approving us under the category of 1a(i) please provide your justification."

Bunny said MIQ was "under pressure like never before". 

"There are currently 400 rooms per fortnight set aside for those who need to travel urgently. This is a last resort option with a very high threshold.

"There is finite capacity within the MIQ system, and we are seeing a large increase of Omicron cases at the border which means more rooms are needed for quarantine."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week there were no plans to change the indicative dates set out for self-isolation, meaning vaccinated Kiwis arriving from Australia will be able to skip MIQ from the end of February, followed by vaccinated Kiwis from other countries, and then other visa holders. 

However, the exact dates are still to be determined. 

"We'll likely confirm the specific dates, I believe, in the Cabinet in the following two weeks," Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference.