Slipping through the cracks – altered MIQ vouchers used by desperate travellers to dodge MIQ lottery

A Kiwi desperate to return home claims he made simple alterations to an MIQ letter that got him back to New Zealand and straight into quarantine slot with no questions asked.

When the Herald approached the government agency responsible for MIQ, we were told: “This is an isolated incident.”

It wasn’t – MIQ’s military co-leader Brigadier Rose King went on to detail the outcome of a completely different case.

The Herald was asking about the case of an Auckland man says he was driven by desperation to alter an out-dated MIQ voucher, getting home and going into two weeks MIQ at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Auckland.

We didn’t name him when we asked MBIE about a traveller on an altered document – and King responded with the case of a traveller who arrived the day before the Auckland man without an MIQ booking and was sent to Rotorua for quarantine.

That traveller was fined $300 – the maximum penalty now stands at $4000 after a law change last week.

In relation to the person who spent MIQ in Rotorua, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it showed the law could be broken by someone intent on doing so.

“It’s extremely disappointing this person lied and broke the law so that he could jump the queue, depriving someone else of a spot in MIQ.”

The Auckland man said he was telling the Herald his story to highlight the plight of those trapped overseas and unable to get home.

“What could possibly stand in the way of a New Zealander trying to get home to his country and his family,” he asked.

He told the Herald how his visa to stay in the United Arab Emirates was about to expire after he was made redundant. He said being stuck in the Middle East posed issues for supporting his family with his final pay cheque withheld until he left the country.

A string of emergency applications to return to New Zealand were rejected as was his argument he be allowed to quarantine at home having had three Covid-19 vaccinations, a negative Covid-19 test before departing and a place where he could isolate.

In mid-September, the Auckland man uploaded an MIQ letter he had received five months earlier but never used.

“I thought, ‘hold the phone – let me get my Microsoft Paint out’.” In the minutes that followed, he changed the two dates on the letter to match the flight his employer had booked out of the country the next day.

After little sleep, the Auckland man caught a cab to the airport. “There was no plan. It was just turn up and f***ing deal with it. I was prepared to bear the consequence of my decision based on the circumstance I was placed in.”

The Auckland man arrived at the airport, checked in and showed the letter when boarding the plane.

“The name, passport number and flight number were all the same. The guy (at the aircraft) scanned it and gave it just a cursory glance.”

The flight back to New Zealand was nerve-wracking from Malaysia onwards. He said he expected to be pulled up when passing through Immigration and border security.

“There were moments of doubt everywhere,” he said. “My sole driver was getting back to my family.”

The Auckland man said he was sure he would be rumbled when checking into the Sheraton in Auckland. When he produced his negative Covid test and passport, he said he was told he wasn’t on the list.

After a heart-stopping moment, the person checking him in handed him a room card, assured him his details would be added manually and that the Ministry of Health would be told.

The next 14 days passed with the man in MIQ just a kilometre from his central Auckland home where his family waited. When he spoke to his wife, he could sometimes hear the same emergency service sirens through the phone as he could outside his windows.

Concerns he held over taking up someone else’s space at the facility were eased when staff told him the hotel wasn’t at full occupancy. Data released daily by MBIE show MIQ facilities across the nation sat close to – but under – the full occupancy level.

The Auckland man said his decision to speak out was after spending the time in isolation reading people’s stories on the Grounded Kiwis Facebook page. He said the suffering people were having to endure was “painful”.

“They were mothers, brothers, great aunties all trying to get home and some in horrible positions and far worse than I. (They were) all in the same boat – emergency MIQ requests rejected, challenged, rejected again, resubmitted again, rejected again.

“The pain and anguish and the suffering was incredible and my heart went out to each of them. I’m pissed off someone in need of help can’t get it.”

In reference to the Rotorua case, NZDF’s MIQ co-manager King said: “What this person did is illegal. We are extremely disappointed that this individual has purposefully ignored the process, especially when there are thousands of New Zealanders, often in difficult circumstances, who want to come home and who are following the rules.”

She said the person arrived on October 29 and it was found on arrival that they did not have a valid MIQ voucher.

“As citizens cannot be deported, they were taken to an MIQ facility in Rotorua where they spent their isolation period.” The person left MIQ on November 11 after being issued a $300 fine by police.

King said the travel and arrival process saw travellers asked to show their MIQ voucher when boarding the plane. Once they arrived at the isolation facility, they were asked again to show the voucher which was then checked against the passport number.

The process was confirmed by a traveller who had been through MIQ three times. She said the voucher was viewed at the foreign airport although didn’t appear to be entered into any computer system. It wasn’t asked for again until arriving at the MIQ facility.

Of those who slipped through the cracks, National’s Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said: “I’m surprised it’s that easy.”

He said he had not heard of other cases and encouraged those desperate to get back home to follow the rules.

“The problem is the system itself. Once you end it, these types of tragic situations will not happen – he’ll be able to jump on a plane and come home.”

Paul Radich QC is taking a case challenging the MIQ system to the High Court in January on behalf of the Grounded Kiwis Society.

The group was registered in October and represents those affected by the emergency allocation and lottery-style systems established to manage the flow of New Zealanders trying to return home.

Radich said the case aimed to raise Bill of Rights issues through a judicial review that would challenge the way the emergency allocation system for MIQ slots was operated and the “shortcomings in the lottery system”.

He said the “one-size-fits-all” system had not accommodated the diverse range of cases that presented, resulting in people being left in “dire situations”.

The MIQ period dropped from 14 days to seven days from 14 November with isolation at home until the result of a day nine test was received.

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