Top health officials agreed in November last year that Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) was “no longer justified” for most returnees, according to a document the Ministry of Health tried to keep secret.
It took another three and a half months, almost 40,000 MIQ stays and seven voucher lotteries before most incoming travellers could enter freely.
At the time the document was signed off, 80 percent of the country’s eligible population had been double-vaccinated and Delta was spreading in the community.
Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay wrote to Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield seeking his agreement to an updated Public Health Risk Assessment.
She wanted it to reflect that “the risk posed by international arrivals transmitting Covid-19 is no longer higher than the domestic transmission risk of Covid-19”.
McElnay asked Bloomfield if he agreed the risk was no higher, and if so: “Managed Isolation for border returnees would no longer be justified on public health grounds as the ‘default’ for people travelling to New Zealand,” the document said.
Bloomfield did agree, and he also agreed to brief Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, and start creating a plan for making ‘self-isolation’ the default requirement for returnees.
The memo noted the government might need to speed up its plan for a phased easing of border restrictions in the first quarter of 2022.
Yet it was not until 2 March, 15 weeks later, before the government lifted MIQ requirement for inbound travellers.
That’s 15 more weeks of misery for people wanting to come home.
That’s 15 more weeks when people couldn’t get in to farewell the dying and dead or celebrate weddings, birthdays and Christmas with the living.
That’s 15 more weeks when people were stuck overseas, often in desperate financial and or/personal circumstances.
University of Waikato law professor Al Gillespie said the delay raised serious concerns.
“The Public Health Response Act, one of the requirements is that the responses must be proportionate. And the advice that was given was that it was a disproportionate response to continue MIQ. If that’s the case, the government has to answer why did they continue down this path.”
The implications could be vast, he said.
“You’ve had people who’ve had their liberty interrupted. You’ve had people who’ve paid thousands of dollars being in MIQ. And you’ve had thousands of people who haven’t been able to access MIQ.
“If the government cannot show why this was justifiable … then there may be considerations of compensation.” . . .
So why didn’t the government accept the advice, based on the science they kept telling us they were following?
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins responded with a statement.
“The advice considered by ministers at the time said that while the public health risk at the border has changed, there still needs to be a considered transition from Managed Isolation as the ‘default’ setting for most people arriving in New Zealand, to a new approach,” he said.
“It also said the public health risk of any changes to the managed isolation settings needed to be considered and managed alongside the implementation of the Covid-19 Protection Framework and Reconnecting NZ. The timing of the border reopening allowed us the chance to get our vaccination and booster rates up and that’s had a huge impact on our management of the current Omicron outbreak.” . .
And why wasn’t the vaccination rate already high enough?
Because the government bungled ordering vaccines so the rollout was slow and late.
That was a very costly bungle.
Had the vaccine rollout been earlier and faster it’s probable Auckland wouldn’t have been locked down for so long, if at all when Delta got into the community; the rest of the country could have been at green; thousands of people could have come home without the cost and inconvenience of MIQ and many more would not have had to endure the misery of applying for and missing out on the MIQueue lottery.
That delay in ending MIQ was costly in human and economic terms.
Now we know the MIQeue of misery could have been ended 3 1/2 months sooner darewe hope it will have a high political cost too as once more the government is shown to be anything but kind.