Cruel to keep so many out

21/09/2021

The enormous gap between demand from New Zealanders wanting to come home and MIQ spaces was revealed with the new booking system yesterday:

With the unveiling of the MIQ virtual lobby booking system this morning, Kiwis trying to get home are starting to wonder if they ever actually will

A few weeks ago, the announcement of a virtual lobby and queue system coming to the MIQ booking system got hopes up worldwide – from migrants trying to get to their new lives in New Zealand, and Kiwis trying to get home.

But this morning as the virtual lobby opened and sorted people randomly into a queue, it was soon realised that getting one’s hands on a room is still more easily said than done, with a group the size of Timaru also at the lolly scramble.

MIQ released 3000 rooms this morning, but with the queue reaching up to more than 27,000 people, it seems nine in 10 can expect to walk away disappointed.

That’s more than the combined populations of Oamaru and Wanaka who are either shut out of their homeland or can’t leave, even for pressing personal or business reasons, because they won’t be able to come back.

Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins told people last week they could expect next batches to be 4000 rooms.

However, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment cautioned that because many rooms had already been allocated before the recent pause and facilities may need maintenance, the timing and size of future releases is still being worked on. . . 

It’s cruel to keep so many people out and some people don’t just want to come home, they need to come home.

This morning’s debut of the new ‘virtual lobby’ system for MIQ allocation was both depressing and a debacle, National’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop says.

“The virtual lobby system used for the first time this morning solves nothing and has just created even more angst amongst the thousands of Kiwis trying to come home.

“What is needed is a prioritisation system based on points, as proposed by the National Party.

“How is it fair that someone sleeping in a car overseas with an expired visa is treated the same as someone who wants to come home to New Zealand for a holiday at Christmas time?

“There are Kiwis stuck offshore who aren’t legally allowed to be in the country they’re currently in, but who can’t get home to New Zealand. This is an awful situation and one entirely of the Government’s own creation.

“There are people trying to move back to New Zealand permanently with skills and experiences gained overseas treated the same as someone who is just coming for a short period.

“New Zealand should welcome back expats who have typically headed off on an Overseas Experience and who have developed their skills and gained valuable offshore experience.

“When we have a health workforce shortage, why do we treat nurses and doctors the same as other occupations when granting space? It doesn’t make sense. We should be rigorously targeting health sector skills.

“Let’s be clear – there are many good reasons for people to want to come to New Zealand through MIQ, but we need to be realistic. Some reasons have more merit than others, but the system treats everyone the same. . . 

There are emergency spaces but sports people, entertainers and politicians and their entourage get those spots ahead of people desperate to return home:

If James Shaw was giving consolation gifts to Kiwis desperately trying to get home this Christmas he’d likely give them a lump of coal, having confirmed he plans to take 14 staff with him to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, National’s Climate Change spokesperson Stuart Smith says.

“In answers to our written questions, Minister Shaw has confirmed he intends to take an entourage of 14 people with him to Glasgow – nine from Wellington and a further five from offshore.

“At a time when thousands of Kiwis are unable to get into New Zealand thanks to our chaotic and unfair MIQ system, James Shaw feels he needs an even bigger entourage this time around than the one he took to COP25 in 2019.

“It is astonishing that the Minister is going to COP26 in the first place, let alone taking up 10 MIQ spots for himself and his onshore staffers when they return. . . 

“We have heard countless stories of New Zealanders wanting to come home but who are locked out because they can’t get MIQ spots.

“But that won’t be an issue for Minister Shaw and his entourage – they’ll be home in time Christmas with their families.”

A points system would help prioritise applicants, but it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem of demand for MIQ spaces outstripping supply so badly.

More MIQ facilities are needed – preferably purpose built and away from the centre of Auckland.

Planning and building them would take many months but there is a much simpler and less expensive option that could start immediately.

It would be possible to reduce demand for the scarce spaces by allowing some people to by-pass MIQ.

Friends in the USA were able to travel out of the country and return provided they were fully vaccinated, had a negative test before flying, and self-isolated at home on their return with electronic monitoring to ensure they stayed put.

The government could start a similar system with business travellers, who, as Sir Ian Taylor pointed out know how to keep their people safe:

What we have learned from our experience over the past year and a half is that businesses have a huge interest in keeping their people safe from Covid and they can do it faster than governments because they aren’t having to look after entire countries.

We are only ever sending small numbers away at any time. The 250 staff company I mentioned earlier has a maximum of eight people who ever have to travel abroad. It’s not an Olympic team. . . 

So, “what if” businesses didn’t need to take up MIQ spaces. “What if” businesses could apply existing technologies and protocols that would guarantee that none of their teams would have Covid when they returned to Aotearoa from their essential overseas travels.

For the upcoming Ashes Series we have half a dozen fully vaccinated staff who will travel to Australia and work in mandated bubbles.

They will operate in public at our level 3 and be antigen tested every day. If they ever test positive they will be isolated immediately but, in a year and a half, that has never happened to any of our Kiwi crew offshore.

Three days before they leave Australia to return home they will go into isolation in an approved hotel, or self-isolation location, paid for by us. There they will be tested each day, including the day they fly.

On return to New Zealand they will be booked into an approved hotel or self-managed isolation location, again booked and paid for by us, where they will remain for three to five days, again being tested every day before returning to work. We have built our own tracking app which will be used for audit purposes.

Variations of this model could be used by any company needing to plan overseas travel with certainty.

Do we really need to do another trial when there are already models in play? Why can’t we come off the bench and just make this happen? It’s working now. . .

No there doesn’t need to be another trial.

What is needed is for the government to get over its control freakery, realise that it and its bureaucrats don’t always know best and open its mind to other ways of allowing New Zealanders to come home safely.


How did we get from short & sharp to longest lockdown?

15/09/2021

The lockdown was supposed to be short and sharp, Chris Bishop explains why it’s turned into the longest:

Yesterday the Level 4 lockdown in Auckland was extended for another week. The Prime Minister said on August 17 it would be “short and sharp” but after another week, it will be the longest lockdown yet in our battle against COVID-19.

(Note from Chris: Here is an opinion piece which I pitched to Stuff and the NZ Herald. Neither decided it was worth publishing. At a time when the PM commands the airwaves on a daily basis at 1pm, it’s important for the National Opposition voice to be heard and for constructive criticism of the government.)

Lockdowns are incredibly expensive: it has been estimated a countrywide Level 4 lockdown costs the economy around $1.5 billion per week. That’s before you count the social cost: kids not at school, families split apart, the mental health impacts of being cooped up at home for days on end. I think almost everyone thinks we should be doing all we can to avoid them.

Sadly, it’s become clear in the government’s response to the recent delta outbreak that while Kiwis have done all they’ve been asked to do – the government hasn’t been playing its part. The “team of five million” has been let down.

Two things have become clear. First, we had no alternative but to lockdown because of our woefully low vaccination rates. Second, despite claims to the contrary, the government had done very little planning at all around how to respond to a further outbreak, particularly of delta, since the first COVID lockdown last year.

It gives me no pleasure as the Opposition spokesperson for COVID-19 to say that New Zealand’s vaccination rates, by world standards, are hopeless. For most of this year we had the world’s slowest vaccine roll-out. Chris Hipkins said at the end of 2020 we would be “at the front of the queue” but the reality is we are at the back of the pack. This is not the “year of the vaccine” we were promised by the Prime Minister.

The vaccines are safe, they work, and the data is very clear: the higher our vaccination rates, the less need there is of lockdowns. Every single person that goes and gets vaccinated brings us closer to freedom: freedom from lockdowns, and freedom to travel. That’s why the government’s ineptitude over vaccine supply matters. The government simply failed in its most important job: to get a supply of vaccines as early as possible and make sure as many people were vaccinated as possible as early as possible.

The government’s incompetence is astonishing. We were one of the last developed countries to sign contracts with vaccine manufacturers in 2020. We were then slow to approve the Pfizer vaccine. Hundreds of millions of jabs had been given by the time we approved it. We were then slow to actually order our doses, not doing it until January 29 this year. And we didn’t even bother to ask Pfizer if we could pay more to get earlier delivery of the vaccines, as other countries did. Compare the cost of paying a bit more to the cost of lockdowns, and do the maths. It’s a no brainer.

Incredibly, the government has claimed at various points it would be “unethical” or immoral to have a faster vaccine roll-out, because other countries need the vaccines more than we do. Leaving aside the internal inconsistency in this argument (other countries need them now too, but you don’t see the government giving ours up do you?), the New Zealand government’s first responsibility is to the people of New Zealand – and that means rolling out the vaccine as quick as they could. They failed.

The second failure by the government is their failure to plan for delta. The Prime Minister claimed on television this morning that delta only emerged in MIQ in June. That is completely incorrect. The first case of delta turned up in early April in MIQ and it has been raging across the world for most of this year. The government has sat ensconced behind the barriers of Fortress New Zealand and smugly looked at Australia, but they weren’t doing the work behind the scenes to prepare for when delta turned up here.

A smart government would have done an audit of all our MIQ facilities in light of delta to make sure infection control practices were up to scratch. Instead, a public walkway was allowed to share the same air as an exercise yard at the Crowne Plaza in Auckland and there was a vaccination centre right next to the Crowne Plaza. COVID positive people are still allowed to exercise in an underground car park in Wellington. Only now is the government reviewing MIQ facilities in light of delta.

A smart government would have had a plan in place for more quarantine facilities beyond the Jet Park. Instead the government had to scramble to get more quarantine facilities going like the Novotel Ellerslie – and then a COVID positive man escaped from it, putting us all at risk. It has taken over 24 hours to move many people from the community into quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, because the coordination plan between health officials and MIQ wasn’t in place.

Some of our current problems date back to the response to the first outbreak last year. Contract tracing has been an ever-present issue. There have been four expert reviews of contact tracing since April 2020. All have found it wanting but little has been done by the government. In this outbreak, it took six days for the government to second public servants from other departments to start contract tracing. By its own admission the government will fail to meet the contact tracing target metrics designed by Dr Ayesha Verrall, ironically enough now Associate Minister of Health. In this latest outbreak there are still 5000 contacts who have not even had a single phone call from a contact tracer!

A smart government would have had a plan in place around testing. Other countries use saliva tests and rapid antigen tests that return results in 15 minutes. Speed of testing with delta is critical, because the virus moves so far. But the government insists on using expensive and time consuming nasal PCR tests as our main testing technique. The result has been people who are told to get tested waiting 10-12 hours for a test or giving up and going home – or even worse, not even bothering. We should be using saliva testing much more widely – recommended to the government a year ago – as well as rapid antigen tests. Incredibly, these tests are banned in New Zealand.

There’s more I could mention. The failure to use Bluetooth tracing even though we’ve all been told for months to turn it on. The refusal to build purpose-built quarantine. The lack of preparation in our hospitals for a delta outbreak – no new ICU bed spaces have been provisioned over the five months.

The government borrowed $62 billion last year on the COVID Response Fund.  Did they spend this on contact tracing, testing capacity, and extra ICU capacity? That would have been sensible. Instead it was used as a slush fund. Instead the fund was spent on art therapy clinics, cameras on fishing boats, horse racing, public interest journalism, and school lunches. Yes, I’m serious.

Auckland is in lockdown – again – because the government failed to vaccinate quickly enough and the government failed to plan for delta.

A lot of people have found this lockdown harder, one reason for that is that it’s due in large part to government failures. Like Andrea Vance, we know the failings that let Delta loose were foreseeable.

The government didn’t implement recommendations of multiple reports they commissioned, they didn’t plan for Delta, they didn’t learn from mistakes and the fear is they still haven’t.


Not wanted in the team?

13/09/2021

The current North and South puts faces to the plight of New Zealanders who are desperate to come home but can’t get a space in MIQ.

There’s a saturation diver stuck in Scotland; a woman whose mother in the USA has cancer who wants to be with her but can’t until she knows she’ll be able to come back to her own children; a man who lost his job in Dubai and is about to lose his visa as a consequence which will make his presence there illegal; a woman with cancer who fears she might never meet her baby granddaughter who is in Canada; a man who can’t get back from the USA to visit his seriously ill father; a businessman who will be forced to move his business to the USA if he can’t come and go from here to look after customers; and an aid worker whose father and mother have cancer.

These are just a few of the million New Zealanders overseas around a third of whom are reputed to want, or need, to come home and can’t.

Then there are the people working here, with skills we need, whose families have been able to join them for more than a year.

And there are the employers desperate for workers who can’t find New Zealanders and can’t get anyone from overseas.

That the government is sending a very clear message that it doesn’t want immigrants is bad, that it won’t do something about all the New Zealanders who are stranded overseas is even worse.

It keep reminding us to play our part and be kind as a team of five million. It is being anything but kind to the other million for whom the door is shut.

 


Rural round-up

05/09/2021

MIQ freeze adds to staff woes – Gerald Piddock:

The Government’s decision to freeze managed isolation (MIQ) bookings has furthered the frustration of short-staffed dairy farmers desperate for more workers, DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says.

The freeze means a further delay for farmers getting migrant staff into New Zealand granted under the exemption for 200 foreign dairy workers announced earlier this year. The industry estimates it is short of at least 2000 staff.

Mackle says it was unlikely these staff would be now cleared of MIQ before the new year. Any people who are brought in to work in the dairy industry will now be targeted for next season.

“This pause, this further delay is going to push that out even further,” Mackle said. . . 

Red meat and co-products exports reach $870 million :

New Zealand exported red meat and co-products worth $870 million during July 2021 – marking a 29% increase year-on-year, according to analysis from the Meat Industry Association (MIA).

More than 25,300 tonnes of sheepmeat and almost 50,000 tonnes of beef were exported with increases in the value of exports to all major North American and Asian markets.

This included a 1,425% increase in beef exports to Thailand compared to July 2020. Thailand was New Zealand’s tenth largest market for beef by volume during the month, at 347 tonnes.

MIA chief executive Sirma Karapeeva says the main reason for the growth in exports to Thailand was the removal of beef safeguards that were put in place when the NZ-Thailand Closer Economic Partnership (CEP) was negotiated 15 years ago. . . 

A stirring idea – Samantha Tennent:

Keeping colostrum stirred was a challenge for a Southland calf rearer until he came with an innovative idea.

Frustrated after running around with a drill and paint stirrer trying to stop stored colostrum from separating, Rex Affleck was looking for an easier solution. He found a pricey food industry mixer in Europe, but the paddle was tiny and the revs were too quick so he started thinking about what he really needed.

“I found a supplier in China that made engine gearboxes and they agreed to sell me a sample,” Affleck explains.

“Two turned up on my doorstep but I didn’t know what to do next. So, I started thinking and mucking around with bits of cardboard and worked out how it could sit on top of a pod, but the next issue was the paddles.” . . 

FMG Young Farmer of the Year kicks off for season 54:

The coveted FMG Young Farmer of the Year 2022 contest will be kicking off with a roar on the 9th of October 2021 for season 54’s first qualifying rounds.

This year, all New Zealand Young Farmers (NZYF) Club members are being challenged to enter to support their region’s volunteers, have a bit of fun and show their fellow Club members what they’re made of.

16 district contests will be held across the country over October and November to select eight of the best competitors in each of NZYF’s seven regions.

Seven Regional Finals will be held early next year, where the winner from each will proceed to the Grand Final to battle it out for the 2022 FMG Young Farmer of the Year title in Whangarei, in July. . . 

Totara Estate stonework repairs underway:

At Totara Estate and Clark’s Mill in Ōamaru, Allan Ward is the man behind the stonework, who keeps the buildings in good trim. He is currently working at Totara Estate repairing and replacing cracked and damaged limestone in the old men’s quarters.

Allan began working with stone aged 15, during his apprenticeship with Dunhouse Quarry, United Kingdom in the 1960s. He worked in the Orkney Islands, Germany, Canada and Scotland before emigrating to New Zealand in 1995.  

Allan notes that with stonework very little has changed in the tools or the techniques for centuries. “A craftsman who worked on the great cathedrals in Europe could walk onto a job now and the tools would be virtually the same,” he says.

Allan has a long history of keeping Totara Estate and Clark’s Mill in good repair. He repointed all of the Totara Estate buildings with traditional lime mortar in 2012 and gives Smokey Joes a traditional whitewash regularly. This year he repaired a stone garden wall at Clark’s Mill following the January floods. . . 

Growing push for national pet food laws – Chris McLennan:

Calls have intensified for Australia’s pet food industry to be regulated.

There are claims locally produced pet food has become a dumping ground for unwanted or suspect meats.

Consumer advocacy group CHOICE has joined the campaign sparked by the death of more than 20 Victorian dogs who died after being fed toxic horse meat.

Australia’s vets have already teamed up with the RSPCA to push for action to regulate the industry. . . 


There’s a better way

03/09/2021

You’ve got a good job and you’re settled where you are but it’s thousands of kilometres away from your family.

You’ve done your budgeting, you can afford to pay for flights and MIQ, and you’ve got enough holidays due to have enough time in New Zealand after you’ve done those two weeks.

It’s been more than two years since you’ve been home. Your grandparents are elderly and you know if you don’t get back this summer you might not ever see them again.

You can’t call the trip urgent as it is for so many others, strictly speaking it’s a holiday but are you going to do as Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins asks and let those whose need for MIQ space is far more pressing?

Perhaps some will, but some won’t and people like the family who took their young son to Houston for cancer treatment, the woman whose own health and that of her unborn baby are at risk, and many others whose needs anyone with a heart would consider worthy of emergency spaces in MIQ will have to rely on luck.

There is a better way:

It’s clear Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) is going to be with us for some time, so it’s past time we fixed the festering issues with our current system. National is proposing five sensible improvements to the beleaguered Managed Isolation Allocation System.

“New Zealanders overseas trying to come home are increasingly fed up with the operation of MIQ,” Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins says

“Unhappiness is widespread and about the only people prepared to defend the system are those who designed it, those who administer it, and the Government.

“More than 15,000 Kiwis abroad have signed a petition to make changes to the inequitable MIQ allocation but the Government has done nothing.”

National is proposing five sensible changes to improve MIQ:

  1. A ban on bots and third party providers
  2. A new prioritisation system to allocate space (a ‘points system’)
  3. The introduction of a waiting list
  4. Transparency over room release dates
  5. The introduction of a Kiwi Expat Advisory Group

“The underlying problem of MIQ is that demand generally massively exceeds the number of spaces in any given period,” Ms Collins says.

“At the moment, with the exception of a 10 per cent quota for critical workers, some contingency rooms, and a very limited number of emergency allocations, spaces in MIQ are simply allocated on a ‘first-in, first-served’ basis.

“Third party booking websites have sprung up, charging people thousands of dollars to secure a room in MIQ, and incredibly this practice is even officially sanctioned by government officials. There is also a strong suspicion that ‘bots’ and other automated booking mechanisms are being used despite MIQ officials saying that has been stopped.

“We need an immediate no tolerance policy on the use of bots and third party providers accessing the MIQ system,” Ms Collins says.

National is proposing that the ‘first-in, first-served’ basis for MIQ should be changed to a prioritisation system based on points, similar to the way in which skilled migrants are assessed for eligibility for New Zealand.

National’s Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop says at the moment the MIQ system makes little judgement about the motivations for people coming to New Zealand.

“Everyone is treated the same, and while that has superficial appeal it ultimately leads to unfair outcomes for many people.

“We believe people coming home to farewell dying family members or for urgent medical treatment should not be treated the same as people coming to New Zealand for a holiday. Likewise, Kiwis returning home to live permanently should be prioritised over people returning home for short periods of time.

“We need to be upfront about the fact that there will generally always be a shortage of space in MIQ, and we should therefore be clearer as a country about who should be prioritised for valuable MIQ space over others.

“The system should assign points to particular categories of people who could then be allocated guaranteed spaces in MIQ for a period of time once they meet the threshold for points set by the Government.”

As a starting point, the following groups of people should receive a higher number of points, meaning they get preferential treatment into MIQ:

    • Those coming to New Zealand to visit sick or dying family members or for urgent medical treatment. This would essentially be an expansion of the existing emergency allocation, which is currently too narrow.
    • People coming to New Zealand to fill skill shortages. This could and should include split migrant families who the Government has callously disregarded.

That would not only be humane, it could also help retain people whose skills we need but who will leave if their families can’t join them.

“Alongside the introduction of a points system, the Government should also introduce a waiting list for spaces, so that the system is not purely based on luck and chance.

“There needs to be greater transparency over when rooms will be released, so people can plan with more certainty. Similar to when tickets go on sale for concerts, the time and date of released rooms should be well signalled in advance.

“Finally, National is proposing the establishment of an Expat Advisory Group that MIQ is required to consult with about the overall MIQ system.

“Many of the problems in the last year have festered for some time, and many were foreseeable. The system has not been designed in a user-friendly way and ongoing consultation with expats abroad would be a valuable thing.

“New Zealanders overseas and here at home have spent more than a year dealing with a broken MIQ system. Unlike the Government, National has come up with a plan to change that.”

Another improvement would be purpose built MIQ facilities, away from the centre of cities, where people could exercise safely without risking exposure to, or spreading of, disease. That would be both safer and more pleasant for people who have to use them and the buildings could be moved or re-purposed in the future if, or when, MIQ is no longer needed.

Hotels were only just alright when the need  find somewhere to quarantine people was urgent. They are not an acceptable longer term solution to the problem that will be with us for years.

When most people in New Zealand are vaccinated some arrivals who are also vaccinated and come from countries where Covid isn’t rife, might be able to self-isolate. That will be many months away and there will still be a need for MIQ for people who pose a higher risk for a lot longer, certainly long enough to make purpose-built facilities a far better option than the temporary solution of central city hotels.

They could also provide space for a lot more people, reducing, and possibly ending, the frustration and heartbreak that people now face dealing with a system that can’t cope with the demand.

Oh and purpose built facilities would also have sufficiently tight security that no-one in isolation could escape and roam around in public for 12 hours.


There are better ways to run MIQ

16/08/2021

The government’s be kind mantra doesn’t extend to MIQ:

A Napier father caring for his sick 11-year-old in the US says they’ll swim home if that’s what it takes after being declined an emergency MIQ spot.

It comes after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received an open letter on behalf of almost 2000 Kiwis abroad calling for immediate and urgent changes to the MIQ system.

Maddox Preston was just nine when he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour. He’s had four brain surgeries and two rounds of chemo in New Zealand but the tumour keeps coming back.

“The prognosis wasn’t good but hey we gotta keep fighting,” his father Chad Preston says.

That fight led Maddox, now 11, and his family to fly to the US city of Houston six weeks ago so he could undergo potentially lifesaving treatment.

Now they’re stuck there, unable to get a spot in managed isolation.

Their application for an emergency MIQ spot was bolstered by letters from doctors in the US and from Starship Hospital, yet it’s been declined.

“We’re not asking for any special treatment or anything like that, we just want to come home and continue to care for our son,” Chad says. . . 

If a child who had to go overseas for cancer treatment doesn’t qualify for an emergency spot in MIQ who does? And why when so many New Zealanders can’t come home are their exemptions approved?

. . . Although the names of those famous MIQ-wranglers the Wiggles, America’s Cup crews, actors, nannies and tribute bands have been well publicised, more recent events and programmes approved by ministers are less well-known.

On top of these pressures, public health advice on separating returnees is expected to lead to a 15% fall in supply.

Documents obtained by RNZ show overseas participants in a mountain bike festival are the latest group to be approved for places in managed isolation.

The Government has approved 70

foreign athletes and staff who will attend November’s Crankworx event in Rotorua for MIQ places.

Also on the approved list were 60 international competitors, staff and media taking part in the Winter Games starting in Queenstown and Wanaka at the end of this month. . . 

Day by day the list of New Zealanders who can’t come home and problems trying to get MIQ spots grows. The system is not fit for purpose  and there are better ways to manage applications including this one from Heather Roy:

New Zealand’s MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) is a shambles and I have a solution to propose.  Hand MIQ over to the airlines.

Imagine this. You are a New Zealand citizen or resident and want to come home. Perhaps because there is an emergency situation in your family or a loved one has died. Maybe it’s just time to return while the pandemic continues to ravage the world. You go to the airline website and book a flight AND an MIQ place at the same time. It’s a package deal. (BOOM, done! as my kids would say). A utopian dream or could this really be possible?

The reality is far from the scenario just described. For those who haven’t had to walk the MIQ booking tightrope it goes something like this. Travellers need to decide whether to book a flight first or book an MIQ slot. Neither is of any use without the other so there’s a chicken and egg dilemma. MIQ places are much harder to get than flights so most travellers book several places on the MIQ website with the intention of cancelling those not needed later. Then the search for a flight begins – travellers need to find one that arrives on the same date matching an MIQ booking arrival. This can take hours online. MBIE isn’t sympathetic to the matching problem, merely commenting new dates are released frequently. True, but irrelevant as new booking dates are often snapped up in seconds. Those not lucky enough to be online at the right moment miss out. It’s not uncommon for the website to crash and travellers can be penalised for booking too many MIQ places. One woman told me she had been banned from the website for a period because she had booked too many slots while she searched for a flight, unable to find any that landed on the same day as places she had reserved. In short it is a very bad video game of ‘Speed Dating Roulette’.

Daily there are heart-wrenching stories of kiwis unable to book MIQ places despite heroic efforts to do so. Many New Zealanders abroad feel they have been abandoned with an MIQ booking system that is broken, is fully booked for months ahead and when limited spaces do become available these are taken in seconds. A very frustrated group of kiwis living overseas launched The Grounded Kiwis Petition  a few days ago.  . . 

Last week we got a peek into how the future of travel might be which could include short MIQ stays and self-isolation for people who are fully vaccinated and have been to countries where the risk of contracting Covid-19 is low.

Those on the green list won’t be numerous which will still leave many thousands of New Zealanders trying to get home.

The swift and deadly spread of the Delta variant has put paid to ideas that life will get back to normal quickly. Medical researchers are now suggesting it could be several years before we’re able to travel freely again.

That requires more MIQ facilities, preferably at lest some purpose-built, and a much better and fairer booking system for MIQ.

It also requires those who hold sway over emergency applications to extend kindness to people like Maddox and his family.


Immigration is broken

26/07/2021

New Zealand is facing an acute shortage of health professionals while more than 1,000 registered doctors and nurses are facing a  long and frustrating wait in the residency queue:

GPs are urging the Government to urgently re-open residency for healthcare workers to avoid losing them overseas. 

There are more than 1000 registered doctors and nurses stuck in the frozen immigration queue – and Newshub has spoken to one doctor who’s giving up and leaving. 

Nina Fransham’s first New Zealand holiday was a Kiwi classic – travelling in a campervan, she saw how beautiful the country was and knew it would be great for children. 

She moved from the UK to Northland in December 2019. Loving it so much, she encouraged other foreign doctors to move to Northland – but her love has limits.

“Our lives just feel incredibly temporary and that’s incredibly frustrating,” she told Newshub. 

Fransham is stuck in the frozen residency queue for skilled migrants – unable to access KiwiSaver, healthcare or buy a house. So next week, she’s reluctantly moving back to the UK. 

“No one in their sane mind would fly all the way back to the UK in the middle of a world pandemic working in the NHS.”

But she’s far from alone.

When COVID-19 hit last year and the borders were slammed shut, Immigration New Zealand also shut down residency applications, leaving 10,000 skilled migrants in the queue.

Immigration New Zealand figures show among them are 901 registered nurses and 235 doctors – like Fransham. They’re healthcare workers New Zealand desperately needs, already in the country, working in our health system, just waiting on the Government.  . . 

Another doctor, Ann Solomon is facing the same long, frustrating wait:

New Zealand needs doctors like ​Ann Solomon so much the Government granted her a rare border exemption to enter the country after Covid-19, now she is thinking of going back to England because the situation around residency rights is so uncertain.

Facing major shortages in healthcare and education the Government created these border exemptions to fill critical worker shortages. Solomon came to New Zealand on such an exemption in August.

However, the Government did not fix other problems within the immigration system when it did, meaning even someone as highly-paid and sought-after as Solomon, who is a general practitioner, cannot be sure they will be allowed to stay in the country long-term as a permanent resident.

“I know lots of GPs are going to Australia and I know my colleague up the road has just given up and gone, which is just placing more of a burden on our practice. . . 

Solomon thought getting residency would be easy given how the Government made an exception for her at the border, but the process for selecting applications like hers for residency has been paused, meaning she has no timeline for when she might be able to buy a house or start contributing to KiwiSaver. . . 

It’s not just health professionals who are in the queue.

The Fair Initiative founder associate ​Charlotte te Riet Scholten-Phillips says an ongoing survey of 2385 migrants on temporary visas shows 82.4 per cent of them have considered moving to another country, while 69.7 per cent of people said the specific country they were thinking of offered up a clearer path to residency.

“A lot of us had perfectly OK lives ‘back home’. We left them because we believed New Zealand offered better, but it’s not that we can’t return if things here are awful, which they are currently,” te Riet Scholten-Phillips says, a British immigrant who moved from the Netherlands.

National Party Immigration spokeswoman ​Erica Stanford says she is concerned so many migrants are considering leaving while we have little ability to replace them because of border restrictions and low managed isolation (MIQ) capacity.

“It makes it even more important that we hold onto the people that we have in New Zealand, the highly skilled, talented people.

“We have a number of highly-skilled teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers that are onshore that are actively looking to leave because they’re either stuck in a residency queue that is going nowhere or they’re split from their families.

“If we want them to stay here, we need to treat them better.” . . 

Immigration is broken.

A small part of the problem could be lack of capacity in the Ministry of Immigration but most of the blame lies with the policy and the Minister who could change it with little if any delay.

How hard would it be to alter the current settings to allow anyone with a proven work record, stable employment and no criminal history to be granted residency?

While doing this, the Minister should also open some MIQ spaces to enable the family members to join migrants who are here. Keeping them apart as the government does is inhumane.

That would of course mean sorting out the MIQ debacle:

Anything is tolerable if it is temporary, especially if you are living to the promise of “building back better”, but what if the pain isn’t fleeting but permanent, or what you are building isn’t better, but worse? . . 

 Immigration New Zealand relationship manager Paul Millar certainly seems to think systems around MIQ bookings are unlikely to improve anytime soon and that costly tools could give people an advantage in securing spots.

“The one thing we can’t control is MIQ. A lot of people think that’s an immigration thing. While it is inextricably connected to the immigration process. MIQ is a beast all of its own making,” Millar told a gathering of exporters this week.

“We do say to businesses that you have to allow for that, for the MIQ process and timing and being able to either have a really quick finger or know a very tech-savvy company that can help you, and pay a premium to get a space.” . . 

This is a public servant suggesting people use virtual scalpers to get into MIQ.

Hastily set up systems, like the one created for managed isolation bookings, are fine if they are some sort of pit stop on the way to a new normal, but not if they are where we are supposed to end up.

Yet there is a real fear disruptive elements of the pandemic, like the chaos in international shipping, are set to become permanent fixtures.

Even if/when New Zealand gets sufficient people vaccinated to establish herd immunity, the borders won’t be opening as they were. Fully vaccinated people from countries with no community transmission of Covid-19 should be able to come in without needing a space in MIQ, but people who aren’t vaccinated and those from countries where the disease is in the community will still have to quarantine.

Limited managed isolation capacity, and the way it is allocated, is not just a humanitarian issue but an economic one.

Earlier on in the pandemic many criticised the use of managed isolation for “business trips”, but we will need to accommodate a certain level of business travel to maintain our country’s economic growth.

Exporters need people to buy their exports, even if those products are digital. And when you are negotiating across borders or competing against competitors who can meet buyers in-person an echoey Zoom connection won’t always cut it. . .

Yet it is clearly going to be unconscionable to use the MIQ system for business travel while citizens in need are effectively locked out of it and families of critical workers like teachers and healthcare professions are not able to use them either.

Surely this will all be fixed soon, you say? You would hope so, but if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we shouldn’t assume it will be fixed either. . . 

The need for a better MIQ system and facilities won’t go away in the short term. It is at least a medium, possibly long, term, problem and it needs medium to long term solutions.

But part of the solution to the worker shortage could be fixed almost immediately by making it far, far easier for those already here to gain residency so they and their families can stay.

It would also be paying heed to the be-kind mantra we’re all exhorted to follow but which the government is far better at preaching than practising.


Late start and only a start

16/06/2021

Who’s surprised that the government prioritised border exemptions for film crews over farm workers?:

New documents show tensions arose between government departments over who should get border exemptions and how the dairy industry lost out in favour of space and film projects.

DairyNZ had its border request rejected in the run-up to calving last year, having asked for farm or herd managers already employed in New Zealand, who were overseas on holidays when the pandemic struck.

It said it was concerned the decision may have been pre-determined, and said the the logic didn’t stack up, including why fishing was favoured over dairy.

One email summary on agriculture stated: “Make sure the clear distinction between fishing ‘yes’, and dairy, ‘no’.”

Its chief executive, Tim Mackle, described the assertion in the documents that the industry could source New Zealanders for the jobs as a “pipedream”, as herd and farm managers were specialist staff with many years of experience.

“We’ve got a sector here that’s New Zealand’s largest, a $20 billion export sector, which is going to be critical to New Zealand’s recovery and we couldn’t get 40 or 50 people through that system,” he said. “That was very frustrating and farmers felt that keenly.” . . 

Last week the government announced 250 farm workers, vets and their families will be allowed in.

That’s a start, but it’s a late start and only a start.

It’s late because workers were needed months ago and not just on dairy farms. Horticulturists and viticulturist have also been desperately seeking exemptions so they could harvest fruit and vegetables.

It’s a start because a lot more workers are needed not just on farms, orchards, and vineyards but in meat works, on ski fields and in hospitality.

These staff shortages are bad for business, add to costs, reduce income and put added pressure on staff.

At least as bad as this, is the way the government is keeping the families of workers out:

The government has quietly broken yet another election promise, resulting in thousands of critical workers being unable to enter New Zealand and migrant families separated, National’s Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop says.

“Labour campaigned at the election on establishing a 10 percent quota for critical workers in MIQ, saying that “the allocation system will ensure a majority of MIQ places are always available for returning New Zealanders, with 10 per cent of capacity set aside for critical workers and other entrants.

“However the Government has never implemented this policy. Instead, they have been measuring the number of critical workers in MIQ as a proportion of occupied MIQ rooms, rather than total MIQ capacity.

“At the moment there are on average over 1500 rooms vacant every day in MIQ, and over 9000 MIQ room vouchers have been unused since the beginning of the year.

“If Labour was actually carrying out its promise, thousands more critical workers would be allowed into New Zealand, helping spur our recovery from Covid-19 and filling skill shortage gaps.

“The government could also easily reunite the split migrant families, some of whom have now gone over 500 days without seeing their family, thanks to Government policy that is frankly cruel.”

What’s happened to kindness? The emotional and financial burden this imposes on these families is anything but kind.

“Information on the MBIE website gives the impression that for each month this year, the Government has been meeting the 10 percent minimum. But when the spare un-used capacity is taken into account, the Government is nowhere near its original capacity commitment.

“The Government’s broken promise makes no sense in the light of excess capacity in MIQ. It is novel, I know, for this Government, but perhaps they should start implementing what they campaigned on.”

Failure to allow family members in is also forcing workers out.

Maheno dairy farm manager Mark Purugganan has “lost hope” of being able to be reunited with his family in New Zealand, and is returning to the Philippines.

Mr Purugganan has lived and worked in New Zealand since 2012. He was joined by wife Roxanne a year later, and their two sons, Keired (5) and Abram (2), were born here.

He has helped manage Quambatook, a 900-cow dairy farm at Maheno, with James and Bridget McNally, for three and a-half years.

His children suffer from severe eczema and so their mother took them back to the Philippines to let their skin recover, as it seemed to be better in the warmer and more humid climate.

“The original plan was for me to go home every six months to visit them, until they outgrow their eczema problem, and then we can all come back here together.

“And then the lockdown came.”

Mr Purugganan last saw his family in person in December 2019, when Abram was a 7-month-old baby. He has missed three of Keired’s five birthdays. . . 

It’s not just dairy workers, but nurses and other essential workers the country needs and whose skills are valued but who are separated from their families.

This policy might have been excused when the lockdown started and there was so much pressure on MIQ for citizens and permanent residents.

But that excuse can’t be used now and failure to allow these families to reunite and to allow more essential workers in is a major government failure.

 

 


Rural round-up

06/04/2021

Mayor calls on government to give MIQ spots to RSE workers

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan is calling on the government to offer some of the available MIQ spaces to foreign workers.

MIQ authorities are urging people to return to New Zealand to snap up a sudden glut of vacancies for April. There have not been as many vacancies since October.

In an open letter to ministers, Cadogan said Central Otago’s horticulture industry was desperate for workers and bringing in foreigners under the seasonal employment scheme would bring huge relief.

“I am sure I do not need to draw your attention to the labour shortage we have in Central Otago in our horticultural industry and the desperate need for increased numbers of RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme workers, but I do need to emphasise that things here are getting worse not better,” Cadogan’s letter said. . . 

Continued threat to NZ from severely impacted global supply chains:

  • As an open market economy, NZ is attractive to dumpers
  • Remedies available to local businesses and industries

Potatoes are not the only industry at risk from disrupted overseas businesses looking to dump cheap products in New Zealand, but the tools are there to ensure a level playing field for local businesses.

The longer the Covid-19 pandemic goes on across the world, the greater the risk to New Zealand markets from products imported and sold here at prices below the market price in their country of origin, according to a specialist advisor working with local interests on current anti-dumping cases.

Simon Crampton is assisting Potato New Zealand with its anti-dumping case and believes that other New Zealand industries and businesses are at risk of destabilisation from dumped products as the result of continuing turmoil in global supply chains, amongst other reasons. . . 

Fonterra to end coal use in factories by 2037 – Gerald Piddock:

Fonterra has backed the Climate Change Commission’s decarbonisation pathway to lower industrial emissions by pledging to replace its coal and natural gas to fuel its processing factories with wood biomass by 2037.

Its submission to the commission’s advice to the Government on how to achieve zero emissions by 2050 acknowledged the difficulties in meeting such a target, calling it “ambitious” and “challenging”.

It pointed out that the nature of New Zealand dairy farmers’ milk supply curve gave it an extremely narrow window in which it can undertake changes to its factories.

“Over a six to eight-week period, we go from collecting around four million litres of milk a day to around 82 million litres a day. All of our sites must be working close to full capacity to cope with this volume,” it said. . . 

Silver Fern Farms responds to dynamic global trading environment with strong performance:

Silver Fern Farms Co-operative has reported a net profit after tax of $32.4m for the 2020 financial year. Its investment, Silver Fern Farms Limited, reported a net profit after tax of $65.4m in the same period.

Silver Fern Farms Co-operative Chairman Richard Young said the financial result achieved by the Co-operative and Silver Fern Farms Limited for the 2020 year is a strong result built off the skill and expertise of its people who navigated the company through a period of considerable uncertainty.

“The performance of the operating company in 2020 was truly commendable across a range of areas. Most important was how they put the health and welfare of their people first. In doing so they set a platform of trust and shared commitment from their staff to stand up as essential workers to service our regional communities, and to service our global consumers.” . . 

Awanui orchard offers step straight into market:

A large scale, well established avocado orchard in the Northland region offers the opportunity for an investor to enjoy immediate returns from the high value sector as demand continues to expand for the fruit.

Awanui orchard near Sweetwater represents 20 years of commitment from its original owner and founder, American-Kiwi Jerry Trussler.

Jerry’s far-sighted vision for the sector had him establish the 36-canopy hectare orchard at a time when the fledgling industry was distinguished by significantly smaller orchards. The entire land area comprises 79ha across an attractive, rolling block. . . .

California relocates mountain lions making a meal of endangered sheep :

Drastic steps taken to protect the Sierra Nevada’s 600 bighorn sheep after another charismatic species developed a taste for them

In order to save one endangered species, California scientists are having to relocate another iconic creature that is, regrettably, eating it.

The California department of fish and wildlife is in the process of moving mountain lions over 100 miles away from struggling populations of bighorn sheep, which are unique to the Sierra Nevada mountains. The herbivores were first listed as endangered in 1999, when their population was estimated at only 125 individuals, according to researchers.

“There’s no expectation that any of the lions we move are going to stay where we put it, regardless of age or sex,” acknowledged Danny Gammons, an environmental scientist for the sheep recovery program. “The goal is to get it away from bighorn sheep.” . . 


Oh dear

24/02/2021

Anyone with a heart would have sympathy for someone who flew to Mexico to visit family members with terminal illnesses even if official advice on the government’s SafeTravel website urges all New Zealanders to remain in the country.

But Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March opened himself up to criticism when he tried to get early entry to MIQ on his return and the case for criticism has got stronger:

Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March tried not once, but twice, to get an emergency spot in managed isolation, the first time as a “critical health service” and the second time as “required for national security”. 

In a written parliamentary response to National MP Chris Bishop, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed that both applications for an emergency spot in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) were declined.  . . 

As they should have been.

The written response from Hipkins shows Menéndez March first applied for an emergency spot in MIQ on January 13 under category 2b. 

It’s reserved for people whose entry to New Zealand is time-critical for the purpose of delivering specialist health services required to prevent serious illness, injury or death; or the maintenance of essential health infrastructure. 

He then applied for a second time on January 15, under category 2d, for New Zealand and non-New Zealand citizens, where urgent travel is required for national security, national interest or law enforcement reasons. 

“It is extraordinary chutzpah for a new MP to claim they are critical to delivering public health services, or critical for national security. It just beggars belief,” Bishop told Newshub. “The emergency MIQ allocation is not meant to be for MPs trying it on to come home.”

Menéndez March told Newshub he applied for the category thinking he would qualify as a public servant. . . 

Oh dear, that doesn’t say much about his understanding of his lack of importance.

A Minister wouldn’t qualify under either of those categories, a back bencher who thought he might needs some very clear lessons about his role and its lowly status when it comes to critical health services, national security, national interest and law enforcement.


Before the luck runs out

29/01/2021

Each time there’s news about shortcomings with our Covid-19 response it looks more and more as if the success is due more to good luck than good management.

The latest shemozzle adds to that suspicion and the need for improvements which several health professionals have suggested.

Writing kast year after the release of the Simpson-Roche report which showed just how bad management had been, Eric Crampton wrote that we had to block the border holes :

The University of Otago’s epidemiologists listed a series of measures that would obviously help to reduce the risk of future outbreaks. Many are simple; some would take more work. But when outbreaks cost billions of dollars, in addition to obvious health costs and distress, even a percentage point reduction in the risk of an outbreak can be worth millions.

The epidemiologists’ suggested measures work to reduce the risk of transmission, to reduce the risk of missed cases, and to reduce the costs of any missed case that does make it through.

They suggest adjusting the intensity of border control measures to the risk involved in travel from different places. It makes little sense, for example, that travellers from places where Covid is widespread and transmission is uncontrolled are treated the same way as travellers from places without Covid, like the Covid-free islands, Taiwan, and parts of Australia.

A traffic-light system, designating more stringent controls for travellers from risky places, could help.

On the simple and obvious range of the spectrum, the epidemiologists recommend reviewing testing regimes for incoming travellers.

Currently, travellers are subject to two PCR tests while in MIQ. The tests are costly and invasive, and accurate. Rapid antigen-based saliva tests have been available for months but are not as accurate as PCR tests. Good testing protocols can consider trade-offs between frequent tests that are cheaper and less accurate, and less frequent tests that are more accurate.

But, since August, accurate PCR saliva-based testing following the University of Illinois’ SHIELD system protocols have been possible. The tests provide faster results, are accurate, provide less risk of transmission during testing, and are much less expensive to process. Where a regular nasal swab test can induce sneezing, the Illinois test only requires saliva collection.

Shifting from one test per week to near-daily testing would have obvious advantages.

Faster identification of positive cases would mean that those who were infected would be more quickly shuttled to dedicated facilities where they would be less likely to pass the virus to others.

And extending near-daily testing to border staff would make it far more likely any infections would be caught more quickly, reducing transmission risk.

Border staff are now offered daily tests but they aren’t required to have them.

Other obvious and relatively inexpensive measures recommended by the Otago epidemiologists included enhanced monitoring of close contacts of border workers, wastewater testing at border facilities and in areas near border facilities, and pre-departure testing for travellers coming from risky places.

In the heat of an election campaign, National’s proposals for mandatory testing before travelling were portrayed as impracticable, ineffective, or both. But saliva-based antigen tests, like the Abbott BinaxNOW test which recently received FDA Emergency Use Authorisation, could be used right at the airport departure gate. Testing at the gate would reduce the risk that infectious people board the plane and infect their fellow passengers. It certainly would not substitute for a stay in MIQ, but it would reduce the number of arriving cases.

A negative result form a test within 72 hours of departure is now required but a test at the airport immediately before departure would be even better.

Reducing the number of arriving Covid cases, or at least preventing that number from increasing, matters. New Zealand’s health system can only handle so many positive cases, and that constraint seems to guide much of how MIQ operates.

There are many opportunities for the MIQ system to expand to handle more arrivals, safely. People arriving from low-risk places could stay in facilities that had been ruled out because they were too far from hospitals, for example, leaving more room in other facilities for travellers from riskier places.

The MIQ system has been exceptionally reluctant to consider those kinds of options. It makes little sense, unless measures that would allow more people into MIQ from risky places would mean more positive cases than officials believe the health system can safely handle.

Preventing those who are infected from boarding the plane reduces the number of positive cases arriving here, which means that more travellers overall could be accommodated. More Kiwis could safely return home, and more people could safely join us, if those with Covid were less likely to board flights here in the first place.

And that brings us to the Otago epidemiologists’ more difficult option – but one that is well worth considering. They suggest running MIQ facilities in high-risk jurisdictions; they had made similar suggestion in October. The government could set a pilot programme providing MIQ facilities in a country that is the source of many positive cases found in our MIQ system. Travellers could isolate before travel to New Zealand, reducing the risk of transmission.

MIQ in New Zealand would still be required if there were risk that passengers could contract the virus at the airport. But it would reduce the number of positive cases arriving here, enabling more Kiwis to come home safely. And an MIQ facility in the UK would also reduce the risk presented by the more contagious form of Covid now prevalent there.

It would be impossible to bolt every possible door against future outbreaks. But Otago’s epidemiologists point out several opportunities for making our borders safer. Far better to bolt those particular doors now, rather than read about them again in a future Simpson-Roche report.

Mike Hosking has a few more suggestions:

A few ideas on how MIQ should be working. Currently, not only is it run badly, it’s not run to its full potential.

It’s run with fear as a driving force and fear limits your ability to think, excel and expand.

Firstly, the experts the Bakers and the Gormans are right. The fact they are virtually all in major centres is insanity, especially with the new strains.

More of New Zealand needs to be used. More military facilities need to be used

Flights from certain countries for now need to be stopped. Tests on day 0, 3 and 12 work well, but isolation post-MIQ is now necessary.

Everyone is in the room and stays in the room for 14 days, full stop – Australia has it right.

I would carve out sections for business. I would allow a small number or perhaps a group of businesses to provide private facilities overseen by the government. This would allow workers and students to re-enter the country into isolation without the numbers jam we currently have

I would allow an exemption system for private isolation. It would cost and the fines would be gargantuan, Australia has it and it works. It allows people with job opportunities and money to come and go.

Yes, there is an egalitarian backlash, but this is about moving forward, not being bogged down with whinging.

At the best of times life isn’t fair. If allowing some who can afford it to pay more for private isolation, with very strict guidelines and very, very expensive consequences for not adhering to them, allows more people to come in safely, let the whingers whinge while the rest of us get on with our lives.

The bubble with Australia would be up and running and running. The key here is MIQ: if MIQ worked and was run properly, we wouldn’t have the leaks.

If we didn’t have the leaks we wouldn’t be constantly chasing our tail running nine hour queues for testing and generally having fear run rampant in various communities.

And when MIQ works, you can travel with confidence. You’ve been able to travel with confidence to Australia for months now, it’s just our fear that’s held us back.

And in traveling freely to Australia, you’ve just freed up a significant portion of MIQ spaces, thus allowing yet more New Zealanders to return home.

None of this is rocket science. None of its new, it’s all been suggested, a lot of its been done elsewhere. . . 

We can be grateful that we can enjoy the freedom to move and congregate around New Zealand that people in very few other countries have. But if, as it increasingly appears, it’s due more to good luck than good management the management must improve and improve quickly before the luck runs out.

And not only must the systems and processes for existing MIQ improve, they need to do so in a way that enables more people to come in safely for the sake of people needing to return and for the boost it could provide to the businesses which are short of workers.


Lax and late

04/01/2021

Newshub’s Covid 19 timeline gives the lie to the government’s claim of going hard and early:

. . . January 6: Newshub first reports on the “mystery virus”, when there had been just 59 cases reported. . .

A long list of warning signs and straight warnings from medical experts follows until:

March 26: New Zealand goes into a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, closing most businesses, schools and workplaces. Seventy-eight new cases are confirmed. Lots of people arriving in the country have no plans to isolate.  . .  

The timeline shows that rather than hard and early, the government was lax and late.

Does that matter when Covid-19 has, largely, been stopped at the border and life is as near to normal as it could be with the borders still closed?

If it was only a political slogan it wouldn’t matter.

But if the government believes its own rhetoric and doesn’t accept that it was lax and late and then harsh it does matter.

That would mean it hasn’t learned from its mistakes and the report on our Covid-19 response by Heather Simpson and Brian Roche that was released after parliament rose for the year, showed plenty of mistakes and lessons which need to be learned.

One mistake the report didn’t address was that the lockdown was more than hard, it was harsh. Using the arbitrary essential to determine which businesses could operate rather than allowing those that could operate safely to do so.

That distinction did a lot more damage to too many businesses at a high human and financial cost.

Another problem with harsh rather than hard was delays to diagnosis and treatment of other health problems.

Closing all hospitals to all but those in dire need could have been excused at first. There was no rule book and overseas experience showed the very real risk of hospitals becoming overrun.

However, once it was obvious that case numbers had peaked and were declining with no untoward pressure on the health system, why couldn’t some hospitals have been directed to deal with Covid-19 cases and the others left to treat other patients?

I know of two people whose diagnosis of cancer wasn’t made because their symptoms weren’t considered urgent enough for appointments during the lockdown and who later died. It is possible that might have been the outcome even had they been diagnosed earlier, but whether or not that was the case for them, delayed diagnosis for a variety of ailments will have led to worse outcomes in terms of both quality and length of lives.

One of those was a friend who broke her wrist just before lockdown. It was set in plaster but the cast was too loose. She wasn’t able to get a replacement during lockdown, endured months of pain and incapacity and finally had surgery in December when the wrist had to be rebroken. She is now now just halfway through 10 weeks in plaster.

Has the government learned from its mistakes?

The continuation of the arbitrary essential  rather than safe for which businesses could operate and determination that hospitals were closed for all but absolute emergencies when Auckland went back into lockdown shows they hadn’t learned by then.

They say they’ve addressed, or are addressing, the issues raised in the Simpson Roche report that was completed after that. But have they?

We can be grateful that the lockdowns worked, that there is no community transmission of Covid-19 and we are able to live as normal lives as possible with the borders closed.

But that gratitude shouldn’t blind us to the fact that our freedom owes a lot to luck rather than good management.

With the new more virulent strain of the disease in MIQ at the border, it is even more important that the government  ensures everything possible that can be done is being done to make sure it stays there.


Bubble babble

14/12/2020

When a joint media release from two Prime Ministers is headlined next steps towards quarantine-free travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand you’d expect it to be about progress. Instead we get this:

. . . Both Prime Ministers and their Cabinets have instructed officials to continue working together to put in place all measures required to safely recommence two-way quarantine-free travel in the first quarter of 2021. . . 

This bubble babble is sadly typical of the PM and her government who so often mistake media releases for action.

It means no more than a continuation of what’s been happening and progress towards opening the borders is far too slow:

The Cook Islands bubble is taking far too long to set up, there is no reason why it shouldn’t already be in place, National’s Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop says.

“Today’s announcement of ‘next steps’ in travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand is an utterly meaningless statement that does no more than repeat that officials are still working on the issue.

“The Prime Minister must explain the delay when a month ago she said there was ‘progress’ and that it would only take ‘a couple of weeks’ before a bubble would be up and running once both sides were happy. . .

“New Zealand officials have been and returned from the Cook Islands, although even that trip was delayed and far later than it should have been.

“The Cooks are heavily dependent on tourism, from New Zealand in particular. Pre-Covid, tourism made up 85 per cent of GDP. Getting the bubble up and running should be a high priority as it will help save jobs and livelihoods in our Pacific neighbour.

“New Zealanders and the Cook Islands need answers from the Government as to why it’s taking so long. A tepid statement that officials are working towards quarter one next year is meaningless given statements in the past.

“‘Quarter one’ could easily mean late March, which even assuming nothing goes wrong, is months away. In the meantime we’re going to see businesses fall under and both Kiwis and Cook Islanders lose their jobs. The Government needs to get on with the job immediately.

“The Government should release a copy of the ‘arrangement to facilitate quarantine-free between the Cook Islands and New Zealand’ so that all parties know what the requirements are.”

The Cooks are Covid-free and there is no community transmission in New Zealand. Why the glacial pace for opening the borders?

The bubble babble about opening the border to travellers from Australia is even worse. Steven Joyce dissects them:

. . . The Prime Minister’s reasons for further delay, as reported in the Herald yesterday, are ridiculously weak. There were basically three of them. Let’s take them in turn.

The PM is reportedly concerned that Australia could have a looser definition of a Covid flare-up than New Zealand. It seems like there is an easy solution to this. New Zealand retains sovereign control over its borders and the Government could reinstate a quarantine requirement at any time. Having a bubble doesn’t mean always agreeing with Australia’s definition of risk.

The second problem is apparently that having fewer Australians in quarantine facilities would allow more people from other countries at greater risk to come into our quarantine facilities. This would increase the numbers of people in quarantine that could have Covid.

Let’s think about that for a second. Are we really keeping people arriving from Australia in isolation, even though it’s not necessary, in order to reduce the number of people from other countries in quarantine who could have Covid? Seriously?

A lot of those people are New Zealanders who are being forced to queue for MIQ places in order to get back to family, friends and/or work.

An alternative view is that freeing up nearly half of the quarantine facilities currently taken up by travellers from Australia would allow faster processing of critical workers and Kiwis from elsewhere who are currently queuing on the other side of the border. Which would surely be a good thing.

Our biggest risk is people coming in from countries other than Australia who are in MIQ. Putting people from Australia, many of whom would be Kiwis, in MIQ increases the risk they will contract the disease from people in the same hotel.

The third problem identified is what happens to Kiwis already in Australia if we have to close the bubble again. Well, I’m thinking they would then have to use quarantine to come back. Which seems a no-brainer. And if this is an argument for not opening a bubble we will never open one.

That’s pretty much it. The Prime Minister is suggesting that we need to postpone our end of a transtasman bubble till at least February to deal with these supposedly intractable issues, which a competent set of people could solve in roughly five minutes. . . 

Requiring MIQ for Trans-Tasman travellers is splitting families and friends, keeping people from visiting the dying and attending funerals, adding costs and imposing restrictions on businesses. It’s also withholding a lifeline from the beleaguered tourism industry.

Restricting freedom of movement is one of the most serious restraints a government can impose on its people.

Australia has opened its border to travellers from here. The reasons the PM has given for not reciprocating are spurious and the government should address any real issues and open the border from Australia before it goes on holiday.

 


Still holes in border protection

11/11/2020

Another day, another report on holes in our border protection:

Health workers in New Zealand quarantine hotels are some of the worst protected in the developed world, according to a man in managed isolation who’s helped kit out medical staff all over the world.

Tim Jones says he predicted the current outbreak when he arrived at his isolation hotel two weeks ago, shocked by the low level of personal protective equipment worn by nurses, defence force personnel and border workers.

He was returning home from Britain after working for four years for a New Zealand-owned, US-based company RPB which provided protective equipment for frontline workers in hospitals in 50 countries, mostly the United States, Britain and Europe.

“In short, New Zealand has been the worst protected for frontline health workers that we have seen,” Jones said.

“I guess probably the biggest red flags were when we landed at the border. We only saw surgical masks, including on army people who were on the bus with us so obviously in close proximity, travelling to our managed isolation facility.”

He was “completely blown away” to find out from a New Zealand Defence Force contact that even staff who worked in Auckland’s Jet Park, where most people have Covid-19, were wearing the most basic surgical masks. . . 

Where’s WorkSafe when we need them?

Failing to provide border staff who are dealing with potentially infected people with the best PPE is a serious breach of employer responsibility. It is even worse for staff in facilities where people with the disease are quarantined.

If farms didn’t provide staff with good protective equipment when they’re dealing with dangerous chemicals they’d be liable for prosecution for health and safety breaches. Not providing MIQ staff with adequate protection from a potentially fatal illness looks like a similarly serious breach.

The Ministry of Health is urgently looking into whether to use N95 masks at the highest risk facilities, like Jet Park.

Dr Bloomfield said there was growing evidence workers who had contracted the virus at managed isolation hotels may have caught it from transmission through the air.

This is a case where precaution should come before the evidence. It’s much better to provide more protection than necessary than to wait until the need for it is proved or disproved.

The Nurses Organisation has been calling for the better level protection, saying it did not know why it was not there already.

It also wants an investigation into how all managed isolation facilities are being run.

This follows David Farrar’s revelation of this mismanagement of a man who flew with someone who tested positive for Covid-19:

I’ve been contacted by the family of someone who was in the same row as the positive Covid-19 contact on Air NZ flight 457 on Thursday.

They have been given different isolation instructions from every agency they have interacted with. They are so alarmed as the lack of coherent and consistent advice, that they want people to be aware that we still have systematic failures in our Covid-19 response, as we saw with the lack of front line worker testing. . . 

Theses are systems failures and each one adds credence to the belief that eliminating Covid-19 in the community and keeping it at the border owes at least as much to good luck as good management.


MIQ needs flexibility

06/11/2020

A lack of capacity in managed isolation is keeping a Sydney-based family from visiting their  terminally ill father.

A New Zealand couple based in Sydney say their newborn baby will not meet his dying grandfather if they cannot find space in a managed isolation facility.

This comes as the Government announced its Managed Isolation Allocation System was fully booked until December 20.

Under new rules, people travelling into New Zealand needed a voucher for a managed isolation facility before boarding a flight to New Zealand. . . 

A friend has a place and will be returning home in a couple of weeks. He doesn’t know where he will have to isolate and is willing to pay more for a higher standard of hotel but that isn’t a choice.

These are just two examples of a system that isn’t as flexible as it needs to be.

The country has paid a very high economic cost to eliminate community transmission of Covid-19. We cannot risk an incursion at the border which means everyone coming in must isolate.

But the risk isn’t the same for everyone.

People returning from countries where Covid-19 is rife pose a much higher risk than those coming from countries which have the disease under control.

The ones from high risk countries should have to stay in managed isolation facilities.

People from low risk countries could be given the option of self-isolating, providing electronic monitoring was feasible and consequences for breaching isolation were high enough to ensure they stayed put.

Everyone coming in is charged for the costs of MIQ which is fair but some, people, like my friend, are willing and able to pay more for a higher standard of accommodation. Others wont be able to afford the $3,100 for the fortnight’s enforced stay and there ought to be a less expensive, but still safe, option for them.

The story of the Sydney-based family with the dying relative won’t be an isolated case and the system must be able to cater for them.

The government has been exhorting us all to be kind.

It must follow its own exhortations and ensure that MIQ has the flexibility to allow compassionate entry for those who need it and a variety of prices for those who can’t afford to pay the standard fee as well as those who would choose to pay more.

 


Who do you believe?

22/10/2020

Nurses in MIQ hotels are complaining about staff shortages and 20 hour working days:

Twenty nurses have been pulled away from other jobs around New Zealand to staff Auckland’s managed isolation facilities.

Nurses say they’re concerned about serious staff shortages and burnouts, and claim some are expected to work 20-hour shifts.

One registered nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, said while she takes pride in protecting Kiwis in isolation hotels, she is now disillusioned and fed up.

“I know many other nurses who are feeling despondent, despairing, frustrated and angry,” she told Newshub. . . 

She said the situation changed for nurses after the Northern Regions District Health Board took over employing staff from healthcare agency Geneva. Pay was slashed and nurses started leaving.

The nurse said shortages are widespread across Auckland’s isolation hotels.

“I would describe them as being critically low and dangerous,” she said.

She added those on the job are sometimes asked to work extra hours.

“It can amount to 20 hours straight, which is very unsafe.” . . .

The DHB, Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and Minister in charge of MIQ Megan Woods all say there is no problem.

Health workers said they had insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). Officials and politicians said they were wrong but there were right.

Health workers said there was a shortage of flu vaccines. Officials and politicians said there wasn’t but there was.

Now nurses are saying there are staff shortages and unsafe working hours. Officials and politicians say they’re wrong.

Who do you believe?


Blinded by the halos

18/08/2020

A very angry tweet demanded to know which journalist at a weekend briefing had the temerity to ask Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield if he would resign.

The journalist in question, Michael Morrah has broken several important stories over short comings in the response to Covid-19, most recently the ones telling us nearly two thirds of border staff hadn’t had Covid-19 tests; that the Health Minister admitted a tracking system for border workers wasn’t in place before ‘testing strategy’ announcement  and following revelations on The Nation he tweeted:

In response to the angry demand to know who asked the question about the DG, Morrah responded:

That resulted in more tweets:

 

Sometimes people in the media are guilty of bias. That is not the case in this instance.

Morrah has done what a good journalist should do – researched, found inadequacies and told us about them.

He is not the only one who is highlighting serious failings:

On Friday Pattrick Smellie wrote:

There is plenty of evidence in the bizarrely vague testing regime applied to New Zealanders working at the border that Pike River levels of incompetence and dysfunction lurk in the public health system and could yet be fatally exposed.

And in discussion with Jim Mora on Sunday Morning, both Jane Clifton and Richard Harman discussed the seriousness of the shortcomings: (3:34):

Clifton: . . . I think it’s pretty clear now that the Health Ministry has a pattern of, if not outright lying, then failing to supply the right information at the right time and I think it would defy belief to most people that testing wouldn’t be absolutely automatic and regular among border staff . . . I was against having a sort of witch hunt into what had gone wrong but . . . I think this is the last straw and I think we do need to have a few serious questions and consequences. . . 

Harman:  . . . If he’s (the Minister)  getting incorrect information he doesn’t need to resign surely, the person who needs to resign is the Director General of Health because he’s misleading his Minister and that is one of the most serious crimes that a senior civil servant can commit.  . . there’s been a pattern of this happening . . think about PPE, the original businesses about testing, Shane Reti again exposing the different versions of the truth that the Minister of Health presented over flu vaccines. It goes on and on and if you read again this excellent piece that Derek Cheng wrote this week about the difficulty of getting information out of the Minister of Health it seems that the Ministry of Health prioritises spin ahead of performance. . . 

This discussion sparked some very indignant responses from listeners, many of whom suggested that no-one should be questioning the DG or the government.

Perhaps these people have been blinded by the light from the halos some have put over the heads of both the DG and the Prime Minister which doesn’t allow them to see that there have been serious and repeated failings in performance.

Kate Hawkesby is one who has not been blinded:

. . . The left have mobilised into a tribe of such determined one-eyed acolytes, that their entire focus right now is to hunt down anyone daring to question the PM’s moves or decisions, and basically to eviscerate them.

Questioning the government makes you either a hater, a conspiracy theorist, a troll, or quite simply unpatriotic.

This venomous lobby group – includes many across social media but most of the mainstream media – has fallen under the spell too. The press gallery are most glaringly the people holding the government to account the least.

You’d think the media and government had almost forgotten about the existence of the silent majority. Those not on FB or Twitter, those not doing Instagram selfies with the PM, those regular everyday working mum and dads who’re looking down the barrel of an extremely grim economic future and are worried sick.

If people were allowed to dare question the PM, without the rabid left calling for them to be cancelled for doing so, here’s what needs answering;

Should Chris Hipkins be running Health, when he is also the Minister of Education, State of Services, and Leader of the House? We’ve already been through one incompetent Health Minister, have we not learned by now that it’s surely a fulltime job needing his full attention? And could I suggest may even be a contributing factor as to why the ball was so badly dropped on the border testing.

Why isn’t our contact tracing gold standard? They’ve had months to get it right.

What’s our Plan B beyond elimination?

Why aren’t we tougher at quarantine hotels?

Why have we come so late to the mask party?

Why is the chain of information from officials to government to public so slow?

How can we trust a government who got the availability of flu vaccines, testing kits and PPE gear so wrong first time round?

I’d also question the North Korea vibe coming from the 1pm pulpit. “There is only one source of truth,” Hipkins keeps reiterating in the manner of annoyed Dad. Unfortunately, not all their facts are accurate, just ask the seething Principal of Pakuranga College.

Likewise, many of the ‘we’re the first/best/only’ in the world’ statements, are not quite accurate either. It’s a tad Trump-esque. But it does play to an adoring base programmed not to question anything. . . 

Exactly who is responsible for the shortcomings will no doubt be uncovered when a journalist finds out through an Official Information Office request exactly what Ministers asked of the Ministry, what the response was and when all that happened.

Regardless of the answers, thanks to the work of Morrah and other journalists, we do know that we have been let down by lax practices at the border and if in the process they’ve tarnished the halos, that’s all to the good.

Many of us are biased, but that should not lead us to blind acceptance of whatever suits our partisan positions nor should it lead us to criticising the messengers when we don’t like their messages.

P.S.

What’s happened to Megan Woods? She’s the Minister in charge of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) but has made no comments on the lack of testing of staff at the facilities.


Need cheaper option for MIQ

22/07/2020

Charging returning citizens and permanent residents for some of the cost of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) isn’t simple.

These people have a right to return to their homeland.

The BIll of Rights also allow freedom to leave and enter the country and freedom from detention.

Prisoners don’t have to pay the costs of their imprisonment.

However, these people, some who have never lived in New Zealand, some who have lived in other countries for far longer than they’ve lived here and some who are just coming in temporarily, are collectively costing the rest of us hundreds of millions of dollars.

We all incurred significant costs in personal and financial terms through levels four, three and two of lockdown to eliminate Covid-19, is it not fair that those returning contribute something towards the costs of keeping the disease at the border?

The trouble is there is no choice about going into MIQ and no choice about the standard, and therefore the cost.

Three thousand dollars for an adult, which is what’s proposed, is a lot of money for many people, in some cases too much to enable them to come home.

If they are going to be charged they should be able to choose cheaper options than the up market hotels most are sent to.

The last intake of refugees per-COvid was in March and they are now being resettled.

No more are scheduled to come here while border restrictions are in place, couldn’t the refugee resettlement centres be repurposed as a less expensive option for MIQ while the border remains closed?

 


How hard is it?

09/07/2020

Two people are being charged with breaching isolation requirements.

The first is a woman who climbed a fence to escape.

.. . . Police said the 43-year-old will appear in the Auckland District Court once she has completed her managed isolation obligations.

She faces a charge of a breach of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act.

The woman arrived from Brisbane on 27 June and returned a negative Covid-19 test three days later. . . 

She had passed a Covid-19 test, the second case is more serious, he has tested positive:

The country’s latest case of Covid-19 will be charged for visiting an Auckland supermarket last night, Health Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed.

Hipkins said the 32-year-old man, who arrived from India on July 3, left his managed isolation last night to go to the Countdown supermarket on Victoria Street in central Auckland.

The man was outside the facility for 70 minutes.

Hipkins said after CCTV footage was viewed and the man was interviewed, the current assessment of the risk to the public was low.

“The person wore a mask although indicated that was removed for short periods of time.”

The Countdown remained closed today in order to be cleaned thoroughly. . . 

Who pays for the day’s closure and cleaning?

Air Commodore Darryn Webb, head of Managed Isolation and Quarantine, said the smoking policy – as well as the security policy – will be looked at.

He said there was a robust system in place “however, as we’ve seen, we can always do better”.

Webb said there was a guard outside Stamford Plaza when the man left.

The security guard watched the man leave but wasn’t sure if the man leaving was a contractor, Webb said.

“They don’t have the powers of police to apprehend … clearly it’s about communicating … if it’s logical that they take chase then that’s what they do. . . 

Shouldn’t a guard who was unsure about someone leaving at least have question have questioned him to find out whether or not he was a contractor?

If the government can pass a law that allows police to enter any home without a warrant can’t it pass a law to allow security guards to stop apprehend people who abscond from MIQ?

The absence of community transmission has left the government with just one job – keeping Covid-19 at the border.

To keep it in perspective there’s only been two cases – at least two that we know of, but  every breach not only risks the spread of disease it increases the time before the border opens any further.

How hard is it with all the resources being thrown at MIQ to ensure people do what they are required to do?

If it’s too hard they need to look at their systems and processes.

People in MIQ in Australia are locked in their rooms. That is a very draconian measure when most people are doing what’s required and if the government can’t find a way to allow people some fresh air and exercise, and to smoke, without the risk of them absconding, it’s time for a government that can.


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