By Eric Crampton 15/04/2021


The travel bubble with Australia has not brought room for others to come into the MIQ system from overseas. Instead, spaces are being decommissioned. Why? The system is leaky. The government cannot afford to let riskier people into those spaces, because the system can’t handle them.

My column in Insights last week went through the problem.

Maintaining quarantine-free travel with Australia is important. Expanding the bubble to include other Covid-free places like Taiwan and the Pacific Islands should be next. Both require keeping Covid out. Localised outbreaks would cause travel headaches, but broader outbreaks could break the bubble.

New Zealand’s MIQ system has barely held together over the past year. Otago public health researchers tallied thirteen border failures since July, and at least six internal MIQ facility failures. Despite being a year into this, basic errors continue to be made – like gathering visitors from different facilities onto the same bus for trips out to the park.

Australians do not bring Covid into MIQ, though they might catch it there. Poor MIQ practice means new arrivals can infect departing guests. Because the government knows that MIQ practice has been shoddy, it does not trust the system to handle more people from riskier places like America, Canada, and the UK.

So the government will de-commission MIQ spaces rather than let them be used, and has halted travel from India entirely.

If there were no way of improving safety in MIQ, limiting risk by limiting numbers would be the only option until we are all vaccinated.

Alternatives are worth trying.

This week we found that border workers haven’t been bothering to comply with testing requirements. Don’t blame the workers – blame a system that never bothered to set up audit trails to ensure that testing was being done. And we found that lots of frontline border workers haven’t bothered getting vaccinated. Again, don’t blame the workers – blame a system that never bothered to follow Queensland in setting up a Public Health Order forbidding unvaccinated workers from the front-line.

Oh, and there also seem to be a few issues in the vaccine roll-out.

Otherwise fine, as they say.

I get a lot of people on Twitter saying none of this is a problem because there’s no Covid here. I don’t know whether they believe that, whether they want to believe that, whether they’re blind partisans or what.

But there are substantial costs.

All of it means greater risk of the virus getting out. That brings risk of harms, as well as additional restrictions. L3 doesn’t come cheap.

But in the bigger picture, assuming that contact tracing can keep on top of minor incursions, the omnishambolic approach mainly means that we will not have a functioning border system for another year.

The government has said that we can open the border when the vaccine roll-out is completed.

But if the government could trust that MIQ were being run competently, we could accommodate a lot more arrivals in the interim.

From my Insights column:

Testing every guest every day would sharply reduce transmission within MIQ. Infected people could quickly be shuttled to quarantine.

Cheap, accurate, and non-invasive saliva-based PCR testing is available. Rako Science has capacity to test every single person in MIQ, every day. But the Ministry of Health’s Request for Proposals only seeks testing of border workers – who are now vaccinated and lower risk.

What are the costs of not doing this?

Around 1.1 million Kiwis aged 15+ were born outside of New Zealand and outside of Australia as of the 2018 Census. We all have families overseas that we haven’t been able to see for over a year. We all face risk of needing emergency travel, either family coming in, or us going over there. Then add in Kiwis born here whose kids had moved abroad.

When you’re dealing with 1.1 million+ people, even low probability events happen in large numbers.

And the MIQ system cannot deal with those numbers. It doesn’t have the scale. And it doesn’t have the scale because the government outright refuses to run things competently. Running it in demonstrably unsafe ways means nobody would ever support expanding it – it’s too risky.

It’s hard for a lot of Kiwis to feel any sympathy for those of us who were not born here. Some Kiwis actively hate migrants. Being able to have family come in from overseas, if you yourself can’t afford an overseas holiday at all, seems like an incredible luxury. And it is.

But there are piles of families that are just split by the border. One would come for work, expecting the partner and kids to follow, and then the border closed. These folks haven’t seen their partner and kids for over a year. Think about what that has to be like for them. Imagine yourself in a similar spot. This isn’t some necessary cost of keeping Covid out. It is entirely a consequence of policy decisions to treat the border, and vaccination, as being rather low priority.

Here’s a snip from that piece:

Basaly’s wife Germin Gendy and two children were booked to fly from Egypt’s capital Cairo to New Zealand on March 27, 2020, just before our country was plunged into lockdown and borders closed. If their flight was just days earlier they might have made it in time.

“I can’t stop crying because of this situation,” Basaly said.

With 11 years experience on projects in the Middle East, including the Suez Canal, he’s now considering taking his family and his skills to Australia.

“I can’t stand it anymore – it’s very hard for us… there is a possibility I can bring them there.”

This is a cost of choosing to run an unsafe border system that cannot accommodate sufficient travel.

It is also a cost of allocating scarce MIQ spaces to nutritionists to serve an America’s Cup boat race team, and the families of ‘critical’ boat race people, because the government says that the nutritionist for a boat race team is more important than an engineer’s wife and toddler that he hasn’t seen in over a year. And it’s the a cost of a system that’ll chuck a permanent resident visa at a cricket player so he can come back given the MIQ rules for entry, but will stall non-preferred migrants’ families in queues forever, because the government simply weighs at zero any cost imposed on those who are not yet resident.

And even for folks lucky enough to have their nuclear family here, it can be hard. I know one family that’s soon moving back to the UK. They moved here a couple of years ago and have had a baby here. They’d relied on being able to get help from their parents who’d come in from the UK.

That sounds all rich and luxurious and scoffable, but think about it a bit harder. If you’ve come in here from abroad recently and have a new baby, you don’t have any of the social support that those born here build over a lifetime. There’s no extended family around to help. You’ve only just started making social links; you can’t impose reciprocal obligations. Instead, you get bursts of very welcome assistance while family are visiting. And you’ve based your arrangements around that.

Now, that’s all gone. And maybe things get easier after the vaccine’s roll-out, or maybe it all gets delayed further because of new variants. One person inside the system tells me the government is prepping for MIQ to last for at least another year from now. The uncertainty of whether anything at the border might get fixed, combined with the rapid roll-out of vaccination abroad, starts driving choices.

And I worry that too many see the costs on Kiwis born abroad as a benefit.

A shambolic border system isn’t an unalterable fact of nature. It is a costly policy choice.

Setting sensible systems for the entry of those vaccinated abroad seems important when it seems easier to get the UK and North America vaccinated than it is to fix our MIQ system.