A lack of space at New Zealand's managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities has led to computer programmers taking matters into their own hands.
Hundreds of Kiwi ex-pats are struggling to come home, with managed isolation rooms booked out until March. Those trying to secure MIQ vouchers have reported sitting at their computers for up to 14 hours at a time.
It’s the reason one overseas-based Kiwi decided to create a computer programme that books vouchers instantaneously. He’s made around 20 bookings for people in the UK, Australia and South East Asia.
Dan*, who didn’t want to be identified, says he doesn’t want money or notoriety, and that he’s not hoarding vouchers.
“I have helped some individuals and families book their [vouchers] where MIQ was not helping - or refused to help. I have done this to try and even up the odds some people have felt are stacked against them.”
He says he’s not the only one who’s created such a programme, and believes he’s competing with two other systems doing the same thing.
“It is a scripting language that scans many hundreds of times a minute. I can listen for certain dates in a preferred order, based on stats collected over many weeks I can predict when they come up.”
He says he supports managed isolation and quarantine in New Zealand, but that the voucher system is leaving people behind.
"The system is not fit for the volume, people with young children are staying up all night refreshing.
“I would rather [the Government] solved the problem by becoming more responsive. I just want people to know that desperate measures are requiring innovation and that people are looking out for others.
“There are real casualties of the system and it is punitive for those who fail to line everything up, or are let down by the airline.”
The struggle for vouchers
London-based Kiwi Melissa has an MIQ voucher now, but it was a difficult process.
Her husband moved to New Zealand in November, with Melissa staying on longer to tidy things up. She booked a voucher and a flight home, but then Singapore stopped allowing transit for flights from the UK.
“I'd already given notice at my job and at my flat. I would've basically been homeless and the voucher system was showing there were no vouchers till the end of March.”
She was told she couldn’t move her voucher by a day, so bought an extra voucher and flight as a back-up, which was much trickier.
“It was, without exaggeration, 14 straight hours of refreshing the page constantly to see a date book up. I was obviously fighting everybody else looking for that date.
“It was a horrible day… lots of tears, my partner was trying to ring me from New Zealand making sure I'm OK.”
Then she got an email from the MIQ team saying if she didn’t cancel one booking, both would be cancelled. She’s now worried there’ll be a problem with her remaining flight, leaving her stranded.
“It wouldn't shock me if other countries said they weren't going to let UK people transit... every day there's been something else I hadn't thought I'd have to contend with. I'm just expecting the worst.”
Amidst political and medical crises, Los Angeles-based Lynda Brendish wants to make a plan to return home after eight years in the US. She hasn’t been able to secure a voucher for the right month.
“There's next to nothing available, I've had a few errors where you see a spot go to click it and it sort of says unexpected error.”
International surf judge Iain Buchanan is in Hawaii. He’s only been able to book a voucher and flight for after his visa runs out, meaning he may have to leave the US for Mexico and re-enter to fly home.
“I know there’s people in way worse situations than me, but it seems they could make a couple more hotels available.
“It's kinda misleading because you see there's 200 beds in Christchurch, 100 beds in Hamilton, some in Wellington, some in the Bay of Plenty, but there's none available.”
New Zealand has a total of 4,500 MIQ rooms in hotels across the country, but over the next month the website shows up to 4,605 bookings per slot.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which runs MIQ says it’s “not aware” of any computer programmes booking vouchers on the behalf of others.
“Passengers must provide bonafide name and passport details when making a booking and confirm flight details within 48 hours,” an MIQ spokesperson said.
It says rooms get overbooked because not all people with vouchers will end up using them.
The spokesperson told 1 NEWS there are “no plans” to add more MIQ facilities.
“A key constraint on adding new facilities is the essential workforce who care for returnees. We need nurses, Defence personnel and police to run these facilities, and this is a limited workforce.
“In addition to workforce supply issues, there are a number of complex issues that need to be considered. This includes the limited number of suitable facilities that are in locations where there is also a suitable hospital facility and proximity to appropriate transport hubs.”
*Name has been changed