Last days for the MIQ: closure of all facilities by July


Covid-19

There are just a fortnight left for the three remaining MIQ facilities – a telltale symbol that New Zealand’s Covid response has moved on from the protection and isolation of the past two years

The last guests to go through the MIQ system will do so in the next two weeks as the three remaining facilities are set to close and begin transitioning to life as hotels.

These are the final steps in the long transition to normalcy for the hospitality industry. The MIQ system included 32 hotels at its peak, offering 6,475 rooms.

As of this week, only three facilities remain in operation, providing space for refugees, returnees from Afghanistan and a small number of community cases.

On Monday this week, there were 85 people at the MIQ, including 32 in quarantine rooms. All of these people are in Auckland, including 25 at the Holiday Inn, 10 at the Jet Park and 50 at the Waipuna Hotel in Mt Wellington.

All three facilities are scheduled to close by June 30, while the Commodore Hotel facility in Christchurch closed earlier this month.

“From the end of June, no new arrivals at the border are expected to enter the MIQ,” MIQ chief Andrew Milne said.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei led a whakanoa ceremony to lift restrictions at Auckland’s Grand Millennium. Photo: MIQ

The other three had originally been announced to close at the end of August, the date being brought forward due to low demand. That’s a far cry from a year ago, when tens of thousands of people crowded into virtual lobbies to grab a room.

Closing the MIQ system is closing a sector that offered work to more than 4,000 people at one time. There is a long list of different roles that these unprecedented government-run facilities require, including defense force personnel, doctors, nurses, hotel workers, aviation security, police, bus drivers, traders, private security guards and government employees in several departments.

Milne said MIQ staff were “amazing people working on the front line to keep New Zealand safe. It was an operation unlike anything New Zealand had seen before.”

Closing the store hasn’t been as simple as tearing down the fences and letting tourists run free – the government has also engaged with iwi across the country to hold whakanoa ceremonies.

Whakanoa is the process of tapu removal. In the case of the MIQ facilities, it is a marked transition point between being a frontline site of New Zealand’s public health battle and a place where travelers can congregate freely.

A MIQ spokesperson said there had been good relations between the MIQ and the iwi in the areas where the facilities were located. These were Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei in Auckland, Tainui in Hamilton, Te Arawa in Rotorua, Te Whanganui-a-Tara in Wellington and Ngāi Tahu in Christchurch.

“As the facilities closed, the MIQ involved iwi who approached either the hotels directly or the MIQ, to offer recognition which at times was a whakanoa,” the spokesperson said.

Wellington’s Te Atiawa first offered whakanoa at Bay Plaza Wellington on January 28, 2022. Since then, 14 ceremonies have taken place across the country.

“The ceremony lifts the ‘tapu’ or restrictions to re-recognize hotels as common spaces,” Milne said. “All of our business partners have embraced this traditional practice and we are privileged that iwi has shared this sacred knowledge and experience with us.”

Renovations underway to the exterior of the Pullman Hotel in Auckland, which reopens to tourist trade from today. Photo: Matthew Scott

The MIQ spokesperson said the government would continue to engage with iwi to find out how they might see a proper closure for the three remaining facilities in Auckland.

In total, the MIQ system has seen nearly 230,000 travelers pass through its doors – more than the population of Wellington.

It is the MIQ that has allowed the drastic border closures for the past two years. But now that this once crucial tool in the arsenal against the virus is being put out to pasture, does that leave New Zealand vulnerable if a new variant emerges?

The current state of affairs at MIQ means that 623 rooms spread across the three existing facilities could be used in a worst-case scenario.

But according to Dr Rod Jackson, professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, if a new need for the MIQ system arises, New Zealand will need more than three facilities.

“I think if we need MIQ again, it will probably be needed again on a large scale,” he said. “So I’m not sure keeping facilities open is very helpful if they’re down and nobody’s using them. What we need is a well-developed plan on how we can quickly establish a mass MIQ should the need arise.

The New Zealand government was quick to implement the system for the first time. It was only a matter of weeks between the first appearance of a Covid case on our shores on February 28, 2020 and the official opening of the first 18 MIQ facilities on April 9, 2020.

But as the formerly MIQ facilities resume life as hotels and take the opportunity to take a break and do some renovations – the Pullman in downtown Auckland has a construction crew repaving the road under their porte-cochere – this raises the question of where MIQ v2 would come from in the event of a more serious variant.

Hotels may have been eager to swap their tourist dollars for government contracts at the start of an indefinite period of border closures, but in 2022 that appetite may have dwindled significantly.

Richard F. Gandhi