National accuses Chris Hipkins of 'doing nothing' for months over allocating emergency MIQ rooms to pregnant Kiwis overseas

The National Party is accusing COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins of "doing nothing" over allocating emergency MIQ rooms to pregnant New Zealanders who are stuck overseas.

It comes as Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis, who had been reporting on Afghanistan for Al Jazeera, discovered she was pregnant in September while in Qatar. It is illegal for unmarried women to be pregnant in Qatar, so Bellis went to stay in her partner's home country, Belgium, while she repeatedly tried to get a MIQ spot before her visa ran out. 

Unsuccessful, she had nowhere else she could legally go except Afghanistan. She spoke of her plight on Saturday in an open letter posted to the NZ Herald.

National MP Erica Stanford says Bellis' story is "terrible and it is not an isolated case".

"So many pregnant women and their partners have been denied emergency MIQ rooms even when the pregnancies are high risk and they have no visa to stay where they are. Hipkins was told. He did nothing," she said in a tweet.

Stanford attached a letter she sent to Hipkins on October 20, 2021, where she expressed her support for the Baby Bridge Initiative - which was started to help others to lobby the Government to do better by expecting parents - and asked for emergency MIQ application criteria to include pregnant Kiwis and their partners.

"I am concerned about reports of pregnant women being stranded overseas, unable to secure MIQ space, and the emotional and financial implications this is causing. It's so important that pregnant women and their babies are not exposed to any undue stress," she wrote in the letter.

"While I understand, and agree with, the need for a strong health response to COVID-19, there needs to be more flexibility and compassion shown to people. Allowing pregnant women and their partners to return to New Zealand through the emergency MIQ allocations would go towards alleviating some of the emotional stress they are under and would provide a safe environment for mother and child."

Stanford says National MPs are still advocating for pregnancy to be added to the list of criteria to be considered when assessing emergency MIQ applications.

"Many pregnant women have been denied emergency MIQ allocations even when their pregnancies are high risk and they have no visa to stay where they are," she told Newshub in a statement on Monday.

"Their situations need to be taken into account for emergency MIQ placements."

Hipkins says he is aware of Bellis' case and the circumstances about why her application was denied, which "appeared at first sight to warrant further explanation". He says his office then passed this information onto officials to check whether the proper process was followed.

"I'm unable to provide any further comment on MIQ at this stage as a court case against MIQ is being prepared and expected to be heard soon," Hipkins says.

"The Government has signalled changes at the border and we'll be announcing those soon."

Chris Bunny, head of MIQ, says they have written to Bellis to explain there is another emergency allocation category - 1a(iii) - that she can apply under, and they have told her the criteria that must be met.

"This emergency allocation category is 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, taking into account advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade where relevant," Bunny says.

He adds that all applications for emergency allocation places in MIQ are assessed on a case-by-case basis against a set criteria.

"These decisions are not easy ones to make, and we are sympathetic to the distressing situations people applying for an emergency allocation are in," he says.

Bunny adds that from October 30, 2020, to January 23, 2022, MIQ processed 8863 completed applications and approved 5396 applications for emergency allocations.

Earlier on Monday, ACT leader David Seymour called for MIQ to be dumped given Omicron's spread in New Zealand. He says delaying the border reopening in December due to the variant was the "wrong response" and if anything, openings should've been brought forward.

The Government announced in November that the border would open to Kiwis in Australia, Kiwis in low-risk countries, and all travellers in January, February, and April respectively.

"Omicron's infectiousness changed the calculus of COVID in two critical ways. One, it became inevitable that it would slip through MIQ, making the system obsolete. Two, its rapid domestic spread meant that new arrivals self-isolating at home would make little difference to the number of cases in New Zealand," Seymour says.

"We now face the old chestnut of having COVID-positive people allowed to self-isolate, but negative tested travellers required to go through MIQ. As ACT has said throughout the pandemic, the Government's policies should be risk-proportionate.

"ACT has been proven right. Omicron did escape MIQ and was already circulating in the community before the planned opening date of January 17. The border opening delay was supposed to 'keep Omicron out for as long as possible' - that strategy has failed."

He added that the "humane and rational" response of the Government would be to dump MIQ now since "it doesn't work, ties up valuable resources, and is unimaginably cruel".