Monday, 22 February 2021

Business as usual & MIQ

I feel that the privileged business world we used to live in has - for now - been suspended. We once used to freely travel internationally, do business, then return home. Using trade shows and conferences as a means to meet people overseas was acceptable business practice, as was travelling for offshore work. Aotearoa has habitually shipped talent around the planet, including engineers, geologists, medics, and advisors.

In March 2020, New Zealand's then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, "pleaded for the 80,000 Kiwis currently on visits overseas to return now while they could, [saying] 'If you are travelling, it's very likely you could be shut off very shortly[.] If you can get home, come home now'." (Young, 19 March 2021). Many New Zealanders came home in a rush. A steady number have been returning ever since.

Now, still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the New Zealand government travel site recommends that "New Zealanders do not travel overseas at this time due to the outbreak of COVID-19, associated health risks and travel restrictions" (15 February 2021). While we do not go as far as Australia and require our citizens to apply to leave the country (Commonwealth of Australia, 2021), we are flagging that travel abroad is not welcomed by (a) requiring all returning New Zealanders to quarantine for 14 days in an approved managed isolation quarantine (MIQ) facility, and (b) limiting the MIQ places available. Further, if we come 'home' then want to return overseas within three months, we must self-fund our next MIQ slot to the tune of NZD$3,000 (SafeTravel, 15 February 2021).

Personally, I have no problem - if I were foolhardy enough to think I HAD to increase risk to myself and my family - with paying for my MIQ slot on my return. The difficulty is that there are still thousands of New Zealanders who are offshore and cannot get home, because business people - who think that the world is still "business as usual" - are gobbling up the MIQ spaces.

Take the case of Barbara Elliston, who is still in the habit of travelling to Australia to sell hot water inverters. She was booking several MIQ slots to ensure that she could be flexible in meeting her clients. In early February she received a letter from MIQ stating that unless she reduced her bookings to one, all her bookings would be cancelled (Cann, 17 February 2021). The article has sparked quite a bit of backlash, with Ms Elliston being dubbed as entitled, and a 'Karen'. Comments ranged from the helpful - "Book a zoom meeting. Send them a sample" - to outraged - "f***ing hell, how stupid can you be? Selling a f***ing water heater makes it essential to travel during a global pandemic? You have to be f***ing kidding me" (Reddit, 18 February 2021). One commenter made what I felt was a particularly relevant point:

"There's thousands and thousands of New Zealanders desperate to get back home, many are stranded without incomes, stuck with bad internet in some far off land [who] can't grab slots easily... and she's complaining because she's [no longer] able to book multiple slots and on a whim she might decide to stay longer in Australia [...]. She's so out of touch that she's even willing to make these statements to journalists" (Reddit, 18 February 2021).

Currently, all the MIQ slots are booked out until 31 May. Without an MIQ slot, New Zealanders are unable to book a flight to return home (MIQ, n.d.). The next few months of MIQ bookings are unlikely to be released until the end of April, as contracts with the MIQ hotels are up for renewal on the 31st of that month. Some facilities are still considering whether they will renew, such as the Sudima Hotels (Burrows, 9 February 2021), and another, unnamed hotel chain (Quinn, 12 February 2021). Usually, only three months worth of of MIQ bookings calendar is online at any one time. It is not possible to book an MIQ slot any further out due to the uncertainty of airline travel, travel corridors, and further waves of infection. This situation is likely to continue until global vaccinations are well progressed.

The PM, Jacinda Ardern, has stated that MIQ places will not be increased. Government modelling has indicated that the 4,500 places available will remain capped at the current level, to lower the risk to the community, and to allow appropriate staffing levels (Cann, 17 February 2021). The cap means that those who need to get back often can't... because there are so many queuing up for the few spaces available.

Further, when the next months of the MIQ calendar appear online, the spots go very quickly. Katie Todd reported that "Motueka travel agent Jeremy Matthews has customers lining up for managed isolation bookings. He [Jeremy] said it took about half an hour for April and half of May [MIQ slots] to book out" (Todd, 2 February 2021). The rest of the slots were gone within the day. Hall reports that "New Zealand has a total of 4,500 MIQ rooms in hotels across the country, but over the next month the website shows up to 4,605 bookings per slot" (11 January 2021; MBIE, 19 February 2021). Like the airlines, the MIQ team have worked out how many returnees can't or won't turn up for their MIQ slot, and overbook accordingly.

MIQ themselves say that those who are wanting to travel will just have to keep checking the page for cancellations. But the sheer numbers wanting to return makes it very difficult: 112,000 have so far returned home, despite there having only been 80,000 overseas at the beginning of the pandemic. Why is the returnee numbers so much higher than those who were overseas at the beginning? The answer is: return trips. A number of Kiwis seem to think that the world is still business as usual, and sign up for a NZD$3,000 MIQ spot, factoring it in as a cost of doing business. The return trip New Zealanders have pushed up MIQ demand. This additional load means that the large number of Kiwis who are still trying to get home for good reasons - birth, death, and marriage - are struggling to book a place.

A Kiwi who started trying to come home several months ago, still wants "to fly home to New Zealand before she's due to give birth in May. She is now preparing to hunker down in Dubai, but expects she will need a passport for the child before she can try booking managed isolation again" (Todd, 2 February 2021).

I feel we should not be giving precious places to those who want to swan in and out of Aotearoa for work. We are still not back to business as usual; and as such, we need to moderate our behaviour accordingly.



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