MIQ is fast becoming a public embarrassment

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, August 8, 2021

                                                                                                                                  Image from www.miq.govt.nz

 

The monolithic Managed Isolation and Quarantine System (MIQ) is rapidly becoming a huge millstone around the government’s neck. Moreover, it could yet become a lasting metaphor for the bureaucratic inertia that seems to have replaced the government’s once agile and sure-footed response to the pandemic crisis.

Every day now there seems to be a new story suggesting that the MIQ system is too inflexible, cumbersome and no longer fit for purpose. Whether it be constant reports of the inequitable nature of access to MIQ places, the inordinately long waiting times for places, or the frequent admissions that large numbers of places that are being held in reserve day for a rainy day that never seems to come, the inevitable conclusion is that the system simply is not working. Its heavy-handed approach is more reminiscent of the Gdansk shipyard mentality of the Muldoon era over forty years ago than the way contemporary New Zealand works.

Government getting paralysed

Yet the government seems increasingly paralysed when it comes to doing anything meaningful about it. Minor tweaks here and there from time to time have not been enough to sort out all the problems the inflexible system has created. More and more people are being adversely affected by the delays, more and more families angered by being unable to visit parents and children overseas, all because they cannot be assured of a place in MIQ when they want to return home. And with reports indicating that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders working overseas are wanting to come home on a permanent basis, the problem is set to get far worse.

Moreover, many of those seeking to return have already been fully vaccinated and are struggling to understand why they should be denied the right to return to their own country freely and when they want, because of a rigid and bureaucratic system that treats vaccinated and non-vaccinated people the same, and New Zealanders no differently from anyone else. The Human Rights Commission currently has cases before it, arguing that the MIQ system breaches human rights. It is a surprise, frankly, that they have taken so long to emerge.

Need for change 

Things have to change and change fast.

The government’s response so far has been weak and timorous. It is unwilling to acknowledge there is even a significant problem to be addressed, with no real answers other than “We will look into that” every time a new anomaly or unfairness is raised. The roadmap beyond the pandemic is due to be released next week, following work done by a team led by prominent epidemiologist Sir David Skegg is unlikely to offer any immediate solution either.

This is the time for some of the bold leadership that the Prime Minister liked to talk about last year but seems to have forgotten since the election. So far, the government has been able to rely on low levels of vaccination, and consequently higher levels of risk, to justify its mandatory detention scheme for those arriving at the border.

That excuse will wear increasingly thin as – slowly – more New Zealanders become more fully vaccinated, and as vaccination rates in other countries soar. Detaining people who are Covid-19 free and fully vaccinated will become an increasingly difficult proposition to sustain as more and more vaccinated New Zealanders, here and abroad, become impatient to start moving freely and safely around the world again.

The government should immediately change its practice to enable all New Zealand citizens and permanent residents who have been vaccinated and are Covid-19 free at their time of arrival in New Zealand to self-isolate at home for up to ten days, rather than be bundled into a state controlled MIQ facility the way they are at present.

Using bracelet technology

Many other countries manage things this way, using bracelet technology to monitor compliance so it should not be difficult for New Zealand to follow suit if the political leadership and will was there.

That would allow New Zealanders to have more control over their own lives once more.

More MIQ space could then be freed up for those arriving at the border who are not New Zealand citizens or residents, as well as being a pragmatic step towards opening New Zealand once more to the rest of the world, something the government seems stubbornly and infuriatingly loath to do.

The last time that New Zealand went through a period of a heavy reliance on centralised regulation, and ever more regulation to enforce the regulations was during the Muldoon government in the early 1980s. It eventually imploded when it became clear there was no plan to move beyond that state. The present government’s approach to border control and MIQ is veering towards a similar, ultimately unsustainable, situation today.

When and how the government responds to the MIQ chaos will show whether it is prepared to show the leadership a transition to the post Covid19 environment will require, or whether it will remain content to just drift along the way it has been for most of this year.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 2008 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.
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