Kate MacNamara: The tragicomedy of MIQ has earned a barrage of rotten fruit

OPINION:

The drama of holding tested, vaccinated New Zealanders in a choked detainment system at the border has been more theatre than pragmatic health measure for months.

And now that the Government has promised to lift Auckland’s border in mid-December, the system – known broadly as MIQ – has descended into wholesale farce, the hallmark of which, we the co-paying theatregoers should remember, is almost always a ludicrous and improbable situation.

The general holding of all travellers for seven days under guard of the New Zealand Defence Force as a proportionate response to the risk that they pose in adding to the spread of Covid-19 in the community is absurd.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is now hinting strongly that change is coming, and if he is to avoid centre-stage in this year’s most disgraceful Christmas pageant, he’d better move fast.

The specifics of the MIQ system descended into a silly confusion this week.

Amazingly, capacity for travellers appeared to have contracted in the emotional run-up to Christmas, despite the duration of the mandated stay recently reduced from 14 days to seven.

Just 10,900 returnees are booked to enter the isolation system in the five weeks from November 15 to December 20, MBIE confirmed to the Herald. It added the caveat that it “may” still release further spaces for that period.

The figure is remarkable because it seems to show a contraction of space, despite the reduced stay, since the period before the current outbreak.

For comparison, in the five weeks from July 12 to August 15 (lockdown came into effect late on August 17) a total of 11,210 travellers arrived into New Zealand’s MIQ system.

Recall that it was hoped that the recent reduction of mandatory isolation for travellers would boost the number of Kiwis able to travel home for Christmas.

Asked about this seeming failure, Hipkins contested the 10900 figure, and said that an additional 2250 rooms were yet to be released “before the end of the year”.

It remained unclear why that space had yet to be offered, or at least flagged, to would-be returnees, waiting and desperate as they are with all their myriad reasons, both life-shattering and mundane, for returning home.

But part of the answer, of course, is that officials don’t quite know how many rooms they can allocate to travellers in the coming weeks. The MIQ space is increasingly used to isolate cases who’ve caught Covid in the community and their contacts. Which brings us back to the great structural MIQ absurdity.

As calculated this month by Department of Public Health professors at the Otago University, the risk that tested, negative travellers pose to Aucklanders is now considerably lower than the risk Aucklanders pose to each other.

On December 15 Aucklanders will be released, largely unfettered (vaccinated or tested but without results) into the rest of the country. Many will simply break the rules and leave on their own terms.

This clearly constitutes a higher risk of spread to the “rest of New Zealand” than posed by international travellers, whose test documentation is checked in every instance by border guards.

Still the last ragged and threadbare rationale for the current system which the Government clung to, at least to now, goes like this: its modellers at Te Punaha Matatini say there is still value in MIQ at the border because without it travellers will add, incrementally, to the existing outbreak and exacerbate it.

It’s an argument that does little more than impugn the value of the modelling itself. The modelling, after all, takes no account of how MIQ is used. Currently it houses hundreds of positive community cases, alongside just a handful of positive border cases.

If you’re inclined to favour a remaining use for MIQ, it is clear it would be most effectively used to isolate positive cases, of which there are now thousands through community spread self-isolating at home.

And what of the question of proportionality. New Zealand’s health orders require that measures taken to control the spread of the virus be proportionate, and it is no small thing to deny Kiwis the freedom to return to their country of birth. Alongside freedom of movement it is specifically protected in the Bill of Rights Act.

Modellers have no hope of unpicking this thorny question which belongs in the first instance with the Government’s own Crown Law Office, and ultimately with the courts. And those, as in the recent Murray Bolton case, have already begun to knock back the power of the MIQ mandarins.

Of course Crown Law doesn’t get a speaking role in this drama, at least not yet. But there’s no reason the audience can’t draw its own conclusions about this miserable production and, as is conventional in the long history of the theatre, treat it to a well-earned barrage of rotten fruit.


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