After a nine-month ordeal of cancelled flights, more than 100 emails, multiple visa applications and doors being closed, a Tongan mum is finally on her way to being reunited with her two young children.
Three weeks ago, Louena Tupa shared her story of how she and her husband, who live in Japan, decided in February to fly their then four-year-old daughter and five-month-old son to Tonga to keep them safe after a Covid-19 cluster broke out in their neighbourhood.
Tupa had planned to join her children a week later but flight after flight she booked got cancelled — and then the borders closed.
After speaking to Breakfast, she was put on a repatriation list by the Tongan government — but was still declined by Immigration NZ.
She was later told it was because all of New Zealand's managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities were full.
But by some miracle, Tupa managed to book a MIQ spot online herself, jumped through multiple hoops and got her visa approved to come into New Zealand, and will be on Tonga's next repatriation flight leaving Auckland in two weeks.
"It's a pretty big deal to be back here in NZ," she told Breakfast today from her isolation room at the Rydges in Rotorua.
Even after returning to Tonga, Tupa will have to spend another two weeks in isolation.
But she'll be home just in time for Christmas.
"The day I was told my visa was granted, I called [my daughter] and I just told her, 'Hey, Mummy's coming.' I was all emotional, I was crying," Tupa says.
"She was like, 'Don't cry Mummy, be strong. You're coming to get us, you're coming soon.' She's pretty excited that I'm coming to Tonga, coming to them."
Lawyer Richard Small helped Tupa get her visa. He says the doors opened at the last minute for her.
"It's hit and miss... People are booking multiple slots," he says.
Those "ghost spots" are only released publicly 48 hours after being cancelled. It means one person could potentially book multiple spots as they secure their flight, but only confirming one.
The MIQ spots eventually open up again, but people like Tupa have to continually check in with their fingers crossed that one will work for them.
"It was a daily task that I had that I would check. When I woke up, I checked. When I had a break, I checked," Tupa says.
Even after booking the MIQ spot, Tupa and Small had to race to get her visa over the line.
Small says it was "nail-biting", but it worked out. Tupa arrived on Friday.
"They need to reserve some places. It's too hit and miss," he says.
"The booking system needs to be looked at so people can't hold maybe 10 places."
As for Tupa, she's just relieved her reunion with her young children is within sight at last.
"It'll just be a very emotional time for me. Nine months. Next month will be 10 months," she says.
"It's just going to be really emotional. I'm going to cry the whole time I see them. To hold them again is going to be so unbelievable. It's going to be a very happy moment."
MIQ GIVES RESPONSE TO KIWIS TRYING TO GET ISOLATION VOUCHER
A Managed Isolation and Quarantine spokesperson said they are sympathetic to people in "distressing and heart-breaking situations" who are applying for emergency allocation, but that the bar to be granted those spots is very high.
"At this period of peak demand - the criteria for granting an Emergency Allocation is currently limited to: if there is an imminent threat to your life, or serious risk to your health, which requires urgent travel to New Zealand," they said.
"Applications are considered on a case-by-case basis but we expect that very few approvals would be granted, and it is important to note that people still need to complete their 14 days Managed Isolation.
"At this point in time we have not allocated a specific number of rooms for emergency allocation applications - we are reviewing this.
"Someone scheduled for a repatriation flight to Tonga would be considered for an emergency allocation in managed isolation if they meet that restrictive criteria.
"A voucher can’t be confirmed unless the person has entered their flight details - Prior to that the voucher is reserved for 48 hours and will be cancelled if no flight details have been entered, and returned to the Managed Isolation Allocation System.
"We review our data to identify people who may have booked more than one voucher to ensure that these bookings are genuine.
"We want Kiwis to be able to get home, so if there are people with vouchers they won’t be using we ask them to please go onto the MIAS website and cancel their booking as soon as possible so that someone else can get home.
"As people’s plans change and they find their vouchers are no longer required, we are seeing a limited number of vouchers becoming available again."