Chris Hipkins, Covid-19 Response Minister, said the government is exploring into longer-term solutions for controlled isolation and quarantine.
Hipkins told Morning Report that the government was contemplating purchasing or leasing some of the current MIQ facilities, as well as constructing new ones.
“We’ve been looking at a range of options and it may be that we look to continue with some of our facilities in the longer term, whether that’s buying them, whether it’s leasing them, whether it’s doing something different,” he said.
“We may look at standing up some different looking facilities. Again, those are longer-term options, bearing in mind that to build a facility takes quite some time, but I think we are likely to need this capability and capacity for some time. Although it might look a bit different, we might not do as much of it I think we’re still likely to need some of it.”
Hipkins stated that any new facilities would resemble hotel-based MIQ services but would be significantly modified to enable longer-term quarantine capabilities.
The minister would not say whether any land has been chosen for long-term usage, but he did explain some of the variables that may influence the placement.
“I think we would avoid the central city, but we wouldn’t want to be too far out of a major population area. The reason for that is you still have to staff the facilities, you still have to have people working in them and if you put them in the middle of nowhere that becomes very, very challenging and very difficult,” he said.
“The facilities we have out by the airport in Auckland, for example, have served us very well. They’ve often got quite big outdoor spaces that mean you don’t have to bus people to get their daily fresh air exercise. So, the CBD ones in Auckland, they’ve been more challenging for that reason.”
According to Hipkins, personalisation of MIQ facilities has so far been restricted to altering the way people walked around the buildings and customising air conditioning systems.
However, if the facilities were to be used for a longer amount of time than anticipated, more customization would be required.
National’s Covid-19 Response spokeswoman Chris Bishop said it seemed like Labour was stealing all of National’s ideas at times, but it was encouraging to hear the minister speak freely about purpose-built facilities.
“The hotels are just not fit for purpose … as time has gone on the shortcomings of them have become obvious and there’s been various infection control audits to back that up.”
He said the government should have started working towards purpose-built facilities as early as October last year, when Victoria’s state government did.
“Frankly it’s in the national interest that we have it as well because again if you talk to the experts they’re saying we’re gonna have future pandemics.”
He believed such facilities could be created over the next six to nine months if prefabricated housing, as utilised in Australia, could be pushed out swiftly, or if the goal was just to acquire hotels.
He believes that if the government wanted to construct rapidly, it would need to outsource the work to a private sector supplier.
His boss, Judith Collins, agreed that the government should have worked on such programmes sooner, but she was sceptical that they would be effective.
“The government’s ability to run anything I think is about limited to a bath,” she said.
In Parliament this afternoon however, Hipkins repeatedly said nothing was certain, and plans about purpose-built facilities were for the long term.
“Doing that in the short term is quite difficult and creates a whole lot of risks but when we’re thinking about longer term planning and sort of thinking where do we want to be a year from now, two years from now, then obviously we can think about things that perhaps weren’t so feasible for short-term options” he said.
While it was possible some travellers into New Zealand by some time next year might not be required to enter MIQ – and it was too early to say who that might be – “we’re still going to need to be doing it for at least some people, so we need to think about the longer term capacity”.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also wary of committing to anything, emphasising the long-term nature of such a move.
“Nothing immediately on the horizon, but we’re constantly looking at the arrangements we might have in future – what kind of capacity we might need, where they might be best located – and that’s a dialogue that Cabinet continues to have.”
She said it was not a change of tack for the government.
“We have not made any decision to change up the way we’re doing things at the border. What we’re doing is thinking a little bit into the future.”
Rob Fyfe, a government Covid-19 business consultant, feels it is time to consider purpose-built isolation facilities.
Fyfe claimed he was one of many individuals, including fully vaccinated ones, who couldn’t fly offshore because MIQ places were all taken, which meant he wouldn’t be allowed to return to New Zealand.
He had heard from the business community that the paucity of spaces in MIQ was affecting their capacity to transfer personnel overseas, and that firms were unable to attract international workers, especially for essential jobs.
He told Checkpoint that a long-term solution was required.
“I think we need something more than requisitioned hotel rooms and we’re seeing a number of countries now around the world now starting to invest in dedicated MIQ facilities. I think that’s absolutely something we need to be exploring as a country.”
Otago University evolutionary virologist Dr Jemma Geoghegan said MIQ might be needed in the longer term, given the virus was still spreading and mutating offshore.
“The two notable variants that we have seen is the Alpha variant first and then the replacement of that by the Delta variant, which has exploded in frequency,” she said.
“That means it’s giving the virus a better advantage at infecting ourselves and replicating.”
“As long as the virus is able to spread between people it is continually mutating and if those mutations are providing any sort of selective advantage that means the virus is evolving.”
Geoghegan said future mutations might mean vaccinated people will need to have a booster shot or further vaccine to ensure the population is protected.
“If there are mutations that allow the virus to infect even when people are vaccinated, those types of mutations will provide an advantage for the virus and therefore are more likely to be transmitted onto the next person and then increasing frequency in the population.”
She said it was important the New Zealand government based its future decisions on the latest genomic research from around the world.