Week in Review

‘Sorry, but New Zealand is all full up’

A flood of Kiwis returning home from Australia has overwhelmed quarantine capacity. Bernard Hickey reports the Government is looking at bringing in cruise ships to expand supply and a quarantine booking system to further restrict demand. Meanwhile, there is now no space for new guest workers, tourists or students for the foreseeable future.

It's the spreadsheet you never want to see as a Government, or an airline, or any business hoping to bring in any guest workers, tourists or students any time soon.

Delivered to ministers over the weekend, it said that by this coming Sunday July 12, there would have been 92 people standing outside Auckland airport or sitting on a bus, potentially infected with Covid-19, with nowhere to stay. 

It's why the Government and Air New Zealand, took the unprecedented step on Monday of essentially putting the 'No Vacancy' sign up on New Zealand Inc by stopping selling international air tickets for the next three weeks. Emirates and Singapore Airlines, which are now the only other airlines flying passengers into New Zealand in any scheduled way, are expected to do the same within days. 

This Daily Data Update (reproduced below) was sent to the Government on Sunday and showed New Zealand was being overwhelmed with Kiwis coming home, mostly from Australia, and the quarantine facilities would be overflowing by this coming Saturday. 

It includes the Ministry of Health's forecast of how many people are likely to have arrived and need to be in quarantine by this coming weekend, alongside how many rooms the Ministry expects to have ready for quarantine. On Saturday, there was room for 6,626 people in quarantine and that was forecast to rise to 6,873 over the next week. 

But New Zealanders were expected to arrive even faster, lifting the number of beds needed to over 7,000 by Saturday, leaving a shortage of around 100. By this Sunday, a net 92 people would have been without a room.

So the Government basically just told the world and close to a million expatriates that New Zealand is full up. It also just effectively told any businesses and voters hoping to bring in workers on special skills visas, tourists or international students any time soon that they should think again.

So what just happened?

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the airlines and the Government have been surprised in recent weeks by the number of New Zealanders, especially in Australia, who have turned up for their already-booked flights to come home.

There were 655,000 New Zealanders in Australia at the end of 2019 who were on Special Category Visas (Subclass 444), which means they arrived after the February 26, 2001 cutoff that makes them ineligible for benefits if they lose jobs. Over 300,000 jobs have been lost in Australia since March. It is not known how many of those out-of-work are New Zealanders ineligible for benefits, but if New Zealanders lost their jobs in Australia at the same rate as everyone else there, at least 15,000 could want to come home. That backlog would take months to clear if they chose to fly home. 

"Air NZ have told me that six weeks ago, a lot of people were booking tickets and just not showing up at airports," Woods said yesterday.

"They’ve seen a turnaround of that in the last couple of weeks. Life is returning to something approaching normality, particularly in Australia, and people are turning up to the airport and boarding their booked flights in greater numbers," she told reporters in Hamilton.

Woods and the Government could see the pressure growing last week and asked to meet Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran. She said she asked Air New Zealand to stop taking bookings and the airline agreed to a three-week suspension. Officials were in talks with Singapore Airlines and Emirates and expected them to agree to suspend new bookings as well.

“We won’t let our border facilities reach maximum capacity,” Woods said.

"We cannot let this continue to be a purely demand-driven system," she said.

Why not just book more hotels?

Woods said the Government was adding capacity as fast as it could, but not every hotel room complied with health guidelines around en-suite bathrooms and the ability to keep those in quarantine safe, exercised, fed and unable to leave easily.

 "This is a large and complex operation and anyone saying it's simple should take a look at one of the most complex systems I've ever seen," she said.

Woods said setting up a border facility wasn't as simple as booking a hotel and they were looking to build more facilities but it was complex. The Government had added 2,000 spaces in just over two weeks and planned to add another 750 spaces in "the coming weeks."

"It is complex and it is complicated, but it is critical that we get it right."

Health Minister Chris Hipkins later confirmed the Government was looking at using cruise ships as mobile quarantine facilities, and the Government was also looking at creating a booking system for quarantine spaces so it could better match demand with supply.

But don't we have to let them in?

Woods and Hipkins were asked repeatedly if the Government was required legally to let in all New Zealand residents if they showed up at the border.

"Any New Zealander who has already booked a ticket over the next three weeks will be able to complete their journey. What is happening is new bookings are not being taken," Woods said.

"We're talking about a very short term measure here to make sure we are protecting the gains New Zealand made and something we all made a huge amount of sacrifice for. We have to do this in a measured way, and we have to make sure it's in a safe way." 

Last week Woods said the system was then 'demand led' and about five percent of arrivals were for non-residents. That is now over, with no more repatriation flights planned in the next three weeks. Flights from India ended on July 3.

The numbers New Zealanders arriving has surged from over 200 a day a month ago to over 500 a day.

"It is absolutely every New Zealander's right to come home. But it is also every New Zealander's right to feel that the Government is managing isolation in a way that protects them so making sure that we're carefully matching capacity with inflow," she said.

"Simply there'll be a three-week wait."

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