COVID-19: Chris Hipkins can't say if his office knew MIQ memo from Ministry of Health was being withheld

The Government is downplaying health advice from November that stated managed isolation (MIQ) for Kiwis returning from overseas could be scrapped.

It took the Ombudsman's involvement for the documents to be released after initial requests were turned down at the time. 

The memo, dated November 12, was written by then-Director of Public Health Caroline McElnay. The memo said the risk posed by international arrivals transmitting COVID-19 was no longer higher than the risk of domestic transmission. 

But COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins believed the advice in the memo wasn't final.

"As I indicated, the advice that actually came to the Government came a week later [after the memo] and we released the decisions on that the day after we got the advice," he told AM on Wednesday.

Hipkins said the Ministry of Health would have to answer why the memo wasn't released.

"It was their document, not mine... I don't think there was any great conspiracy to keep the information private there."

AM host Ryan Bridge asked Hipkins if his office was told the document was being withheld.

"I couldn't answer that," Hipkins responded. "As I said, we get a lot of information requests and I don't personally review every single one of them."

The memo was written more than a month prior to Christmas when Kiwis stranded overseas were still having to apply for spots in the MIQ lottery.

But Hipkins said the COVID-19 game changed after the memo was written.

"Quite a lot happened in that time; so we made that announcement in later November that we would be removing MIQ for people coming into the country.

"About two days later, the World Health Organization designated Omicron as a variant of concern and, after monitoring it for several weeks, just before Christmas we actually announced that we were delaying the reopening and the removal of MIQ so that we could get our booster rates up.

"The suggestion that we did nothing for the serval months between when this memo was first written and when the border finally reopened isn't actually correct. Things changed during that time."

Hipkins recognised that MIQ had a massive toll on many New Zealanders offshore.

"The delay that we made just before Christmas I acknowledged took away some certainty that people had been really looking forward to," he said.

"None of the decisions that we've made around the border have been made lightly and, in fact, what you see through the chain of [the] written advice that we've received on this, is that we did sweat those decisions and we did make sure that we were making very robust decisions here."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon said he wasn't surprised health officials found MIQ wasn't justified and expected the Government to make an apology.

"There were actually very few people coming through, that were in MIQ, actually COVID-positive at the time," he told AM. "There wasn't really a plan and there wasn't actually any justification for MIQ."