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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsJuly 15, 2021

With changes to the booking system ruled out, the MIQ bots are here to stay

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The government won’t be shaking up border facilities despite the number of people overseas who can’t get a spot back this year. Justin Giovannetti reports.

The country’s managed-isolation spots are fully booked through to December and any new spaces are often snapped up in seconds by automated software, but the head of the Covid-19 response says there are no plans to change how the booking system works.

There’s growing frustration on overseas forums with the country’s border facilities now effectively full until the end of the year and New Zealanders wanting to come home becoming increasingly desperate. Many are now turning to automated systems that charge up to $2,600 to secure a spot before Christmas.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said there had been ample warning that demand for spaces was going to outstrip supply. New Zealanders wanting to return home should have done so months ago, he told reporters yesterday.

“There is a reason that I stood here several months ago and said to New Zealanders who need to come home to New Zealand that now is good – it’s because we had space and we knew it was a likelihood that at some time in the future demand would outstrip supply,” he said during a press conference at the Beehive. “We’ve reached that point, although it was before we expected we’d reach it.”

He did not answer how that advice would have helped New Zealanders who travelled to be with loved ones dying overseas, or others who want to come here now to be with loved ones dying or facing an emergency.

Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins at a Beehive press conference (Photo: Getty Images)

Megan Main, the government’s joint head of managed isolation and quarantine, appeared alongside Hipkins to defend the booking system for MIQ, which has been under increased scrutiny in recent days.

Under the system’s terms of use, people are banned from using automated systems to book a spot at the border. However, Main said there are no plans to alter the booking system to block the software because the ban only applies to individuals who use an automated service and not the service itself. 

“Where we identify that, we do stop them from using the site. What we do encourage is people to follow our terms of use, but these ‘refreshers’ do not actually make the bookings for people,” she said. Main could not say how many people had their stays revoked for violating the terms of use.

Her argument, one that was also made on Tuesday by prime minister Jacinda Ardern, is that because the automated systems require users to input their details into a third-party website and require some human interaction at the very end of the process to confirm a booking, they aren’t fully automated bots. They do however snap up a room and put a hold on it within seconds of the MIQ slots being posted.

Some of these automated solutions are offered free of charge to help people in desperate need, while others cost thousands of dollars and also advertise their services to the business crowd to help them secure multiple return spots, which provides them with travel options for trips overseas.

There will be a slight change to the system made this week so that humans can refresh the booking page more easily in their competition with automated systems, said Main. “We’re trying to make it as equitable as possible,” she added.

Officials have looked at creating a waiting list, a lottery or alerts telling people that spots are about to open, but each of those options creates its own problems, said Hipkins.

The real problem isn’t people needing to beat automated software, but the overall demand for spaces, according to the government.

“At any one time there will be thousands of people trying to get one of those places, they will go quickly. This isn’t so much a system problem as a demand vs supply problem. There’s a reason the supply is limited and that’s because we’ve got to keep the system safe,” added Main.

During its second year in operation the managed-isolation system has effectively shrunk in size.

At the start of the year, there were 4,500 rooms in MIQ and the system generally ran near capacity with over 4,400 rooms occupied. In total, about 6,000 people were going through border facilities at any time.

There are now only 4,000 rooms and the system is now considered full with only 2,500 of them occupied. That means almost half as many people, currently about 3,550, are doing their fortnight in border facilities.

Some hotels have been removed in recent months, owing to ventilation systems that have been ruled inadequate as standards have increased. But changes in how the system operates have also led to odd discrepancies that mean the border facilities can be 40% empty while being considered full.

Until earlier this week, 500 rooms were being left empty in case the trans-Tasman bubble popped. With the situation in New South Wales, those rooms are now going to be used for the first time.

The government has also moved to a system of cohorts, where a number of flights arriving at similar times are put into a hotel and then the facility is closed to new arrivals for 14 days. That reduces the risk of someone picking up an infection from a new arrival near the end of their stay, but also means that rooms are left empty on purpose.

There have also been a number of special programmes and exemptions created by the government that require rooms to be available. The result of all these changes is a programme that runs less efficiently – and a lot of New Zealanders who remain stuck abroad and desperate to come home.

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