The 90% project: Some Kiwis battling MIQ system to come home are giving up

A high vaccination rate is one of the key tools which will allow New Zealand’s border to reopen. This will be a lifeline for the thousands of Kiwis living abroad who are suffering under immense competition for managed isolation rooms. With roughly 3000 rooms to be released on Tuesday, these are the stories from Kiwis who just want to come home.

Hannah Fan (Australia)

Like many, University of Sydney student Hannah Fan is facing significant uncertainty as she vies for a spot in MIQ.

The 19-year-old is approaching the end of her first year studying science across the ditch, away from her Auckland-based parents and sister, who studies in Otago.

With her exams and university accommodation ending in early December, Fan doesn’t know where she’ll live if she can’t come home.

“I’m not really sure where I’ll be living this summer if I don’t go home.”

The fully vaccinated teenager has had two flights to New Zealand earlier in the year cancelled due to Australia’s volatile Covid-19 situation. She was behind about 18,000 people in Monday’s first MIQ room release using the virtual lobby system.

She’s well aware others are in more complicated situations, and felt increasing MIQ supply was a necessity.

“I understand where the [lobby] system came from, but 3000 rooms is not enough and I don’t think [the Government] realises that.”

Her mother, Suzy, hopes the Government can give targeted assistance for students in predicaments similar to her daughter’s.

“Very fingers-crossed the Government will be thinking about children studying in Australia so they can come home safely, so they can get home for Christmas time with family.”

Louis Ribiere-Male (Australia)

Ribiere-Male is another Kiwi at the University of Sydney with no clear plan as to what will happen come early December should he not secure a spot in MIQ.

The 21-year-old law and international relations student hasn’t seen his Auckland whānau in person since early last year, having had two flights home cancelled.

With his father’s business going through multiple lockdowns and a grandparent surviving cancer, Ribiere-Male says it’s been tough to watch from afar.

“That anxiety of living away from home and knowing that if something went wrong, you can’t get on the first flight back … that’s a very difficult thing to live with.”

He accepts if push came to shove, he could rely on friends when his university accommodation ended.

However, the soon-to-be fully vaccinated teenager says New Zealand should implement reduced isolation terms or self-isolation for immunised travellers to avoid the stress of 14 days locked in a hotel.

“I did it a year and a half ago and I said I’d never do it again [but] I would do it because I can see family.”

Sanjay Banerjee (Indonesia)

Sanjay Banerjee had little choice but to look overseas for work when he was made redundant in New Zealand early last year.

Working as an engineer at a remote power plant in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province, it meant leaving behind his wife, Ipsita, and 15-year-old daughter, Megh, in Auckland.

However, the situation is growing more dire as his employment and work visa expires in December with no assurance it will be extended, should he fail to book an MIQ spot in future room releases.

“It would be great to be together with family for Christmas, it’s very stressful that you can’t return to your own home,” he says.

The 54-year-old was out of bed at 2.30am to participate in last week’s room release. Waiting in the rain, Banerjee had to book a car to travel to an area with strong enough reception, only to be behind 7000 others in the queue.

“I don’t want to sound emotional but I’m extremely depressed and this happened when I realised 30,000 people were fighting for 3000 rooms.”

Banerjee’s frustration over lack of MIQ supply has grown over the months he has been trying to return home and says alternative solutions are required immediately to satisfy demand.

Tim Vaughan (Singapore):

As a father of three young boys, 34-year-old Tim Vaughan is desperate to return home from Singapore after months of trying.

The whānau moved from New Zealand early last year to grow Vaughan’s technology company. However, as Singapore’s Covid-19 situation worsened, partner Kate and the kids returned to Aotearoa in May this year.

Since June, Vaughan has been battling the MIQ booking system to secure a spot, but to no avail.

“[The boys] kind of understand what’s going on but they are really confused why the Government wouldn’t let Dad back in the country,” he says.

The uncertainty he’s lived with for months has taken its toll emotionally, exacerbated by the birthdays and special occasions he misses.

“Every night we have the phone set up so I can put our 3-year-old to sleep and that’s really difficult. It’s the little milestones that he’s achieving that I’m not there for.”

Vaughan considers the Government’s lack of engagement with the private sector and reluctance to create a priority-based MIQ booking system as significant failures.

“There just needs to be way more lateral thinking rather than this blind commitment to the Government managing things, because it’s clearly not working.”

Brian Kemp (Brunei)

Brian Kemp, an English language teacher in Brunei, could be facing deportation if he can’t secure a spot in MIQ by January.

The fully vaccinated 52-year-old has worked across Southeast Asia for the last decade, primarily as an educator.

In July, Kemp and his partner from Cambodia decided it was time to settle in Aotearoa, reuniting the former Hamilton resident with his two children and four siblings.

However, with his employment and work visa set to finish in December, it’s now a race against time which could potentially end in deportation from Brunei if he’s unsuccessful in upcoming room releases.

“It’s obviously very stressful, I like to be able to plan my life,” he said.

His employers have given him a few weeks’ grace period in January if Kemp has not been able to book a room. However, should January come and go without any progress, Kemp may be forced to find work in another country to avoid staying in Brunei illegally.

It’s not the first time Kemp has been caught out by Covid. Three separate flights to New Zealand to attend his daughter’s wedding in early March last year were cancelled due to the virus’ global spread.

After months of competing with tens of thousands of other returnee hopefuls, the former economics teacher is frustrated more hasn’t been done to boost MIQ supply.

“If it was an actual privately run company supplying this service … you would find more supply.”

Kemp hopes the Government will implement a priority-based selection process, citing friends whose visas are expiring in the coming days and weeks.

“I’m lucky, I have time. These guys don’t have time.”

Marlene Stephenson (South Africa)

Marlene Stephenson wants her 8-year-old son to have a clear memory of his New Zealand-based grandfather before the 87-year-old’s terminal lung disease proves too difficult to fight off.

It’s been three years since the Johannesburg resident came home to see her elderly father and she fears the worst could happen before she’s able to return.

“I don’t know whether [he has] two months or six months, I just don’t know.”

It’s that uncertainty which precludes the 50-year-old from attaining emergency allocation.

At 23,167th in the queue on Monday, Stephenson had no chance and now has her fingers crossed for Tuesday’s room release.

Adding to her predicament are visa issues. Stephenson applied for permanent residency 18 months ago but it’s still being processed – the same goes for her temporary visa extension.

Should she leave for New Zealand before one of her applications is confirmed, Stephenson says she will not be able to return to South Africa.

“It’s an awful situation.”

However, Stephenson says an underlying consequence of the MIQ system has been the negative sentiment fostered by domestic Kiwis for their overseas brethren.

“I think it’s turned a lot of New Zealanders against other New Zealanders, which is really quite sad.”

She believes the lack of acknowledgment from the Government regarding the system’s woes would impact the voting future of many in her position.

Mark Smith* (England)

London-based businessman Mark Smith (not his real name) has little sympathy for the Government’s MIQ issues.

The 45-year-old wants to return home after 11 years away, eager to reunite with family coping with the recent loss of a close relative.

Smith is a firm supporter of a priority-based MIQ booking system, which he says is simple enough to construct and would mean those looking to return permanently would be prioritised above holidaymakers.

Fully vaccinated, Smith also condemns the Government’s reluctance to consider the vaccination status of travellers – citing England’s MIQ system in which the vaccinated are afforded a shorter isolation period.

Worryingly, Smith references friends who have abandoned attempts to book an MIQ spot to avoid giving their families false hope.

“People are giving up on even being able to get home, they’re just like, ‘It’s not an option’.”

Tuesday's room release

About 3000 rooms across October, November and December will be released on September 28. The online lobby will be open at 5pm (NZT). People seeking a room will have an hour to enter the lobby before it closes and a queue is formed.

MIQ joint head Megan Main acknowledged the feelings of those who missed out last week.

“We know there are thousands of people who missed out in Monday’s release and we understand this is a difficult and frustrating time for many who want to return home.

“The demand we saw of more than 31,000 people gives us a better understanding of just how many people are wanting to travel back into New Zealand.

“I want to reassure people that we’ve still got several thousand vouchers to release through to the end of the year and we are working with airlines on schedules for early 2022 so that we can start to release vouchers further out.”

She defended the lobby format as an improvement on the previous system, but said it was not a “silver bullet”.

“It will not fix the issue of supply and demand when we have more people wanting to book than we have places.

“Unfortunately, in periods of high demand, a lot of people will miss out on securing a room.”

Room releases will continue on a regular basis, however, the number of rooms being released each time will vary.

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