Leading epidemiologist calling for overhaul of MIQ process amid repeated system failures

Leading epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker is calling for the country’s managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) process to be overhauled as New Zealand continues to see a failure in the system every fortnight. 

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The Otago University professor told Q+A the country is seeing a failure in the system every two weeks. Source: Q+A

Baker told Q+A this morning that the MIQ system, testing and contact tracing are “real triumphs for New Zealand”, which are “core to our very effective elimination strategy”.

“We’ve got 3000 people coming into New Zealand every week, going through the system and most of the time, it’s working very well,” he said.

However, he added that New Zealand is seeing “a failure every two weeks", with “about half of them” developing into outbreaks.

Baker said there is also “more and more pressure going on the system” as we continue to take in people from countries “where the pandemic is out of control and becoming more intense”, which he called our “main area of vulnerability”.

Baker explained that the country has seen a failure every two weeks due to the 32 facilities being hotels “being used for something they were never designed for, of course, which is being quarantine facilities”, some of which are located in large cities.

“That is, inevitably, an area of vulnerability … and we are having more people, rather than fewer, coming from high-incidence countries where they are infected.”

He instead called for the Government to “move away from this ‘one size fits all’ approach to a risk-based system”, much like a traffic light, with greater effort being placed into managing arrivals from high-risk countries than those from more low-risk countries, such as the Pacific Islands and potentially all of Australia.

Baker suggested arrivals from lower-risk countries could initially spend one week in managed isolation before moving to one week of home quarantine, but added that we “should really be moving towards no time in MIQ very quickly”.

“Really, the chance that anyone from most of Australia being infected is very similar - or probably the same - as New Zealand now.”

Baker said arrivals from high-risk countries should see more stringent measures put in place, such as undergoing one week of quarantine and at least one negative test before getting on their flight. Positive test results should result in having to delay their travel by at least two weeks.

He said it would not add greater complexity to the system inside New Zealand but, rather, “more effort into what happens before the person gets on the flight”.

“We should work towards the ideal of having no one arriving in New Zealand to test positive,” he said, adding that while it is a “pretty aspirational” goal, reducing or halving the number of people entering the MIQ system would also lead to a decreased risk to New Zealand.

“One of the perverse effects of actually taking people out of the MIQ facility who don’t need to be there - particularly people from Australia - is it might actually increase the risk for New Zealand because then we’d have a lot more infected people going through that system, so I think we have to put a lot more effort into that group of travellers.”

The risk-based system is one of a number of areas currently under review, he said.

“We have a bit of breathing space, I think, to fine-tune the system, but we don’t have much space because this risk is going to increase before it gets less.”