Details have emerged of the government’s plans for a future quarantine system to replace managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) in a paper that says the country was not well prepared for the current pandemic.
In December, covid response minister Chris Hipkins sought permission to develop a business case for a national quarantine system that would include up to 1,000 quarantine standard rooms in crown-controlled sites and a dedicated core workforce to provide quarantine, wellbeing and response services.
Hipkins advised his ministerial colleagues that the current MIQ operating model “had substantial limitations” due to a failure to do long-term planning and investment in epidemic and pandemic response.
Hipkins cited the Global Health Security Index ranking New Zealand 35th out of 195 countries for Pandemic Preparedness in 2019 but his accompanying comment has been redacted due to it containing “free and frank opinions”.
He was concerned that the physical infrastructure of MIQ was provided through “a relatively fragile network of contracts” with hotels that were not designed for infection prevention and control (IPC) or to house people for an extended time with limitations on their freedom of movement.
He noted that hotels have limitations which had an impact on the safety and efficiency of the MIQ workforce: “For example, the configuration of rooms accessed by a single door along a narrow hallway is typical of hotels, but there may be alternative options which allow for more efficient and safe delivery of services.”
He also said the MIQ workforce had relied on the willingness of agencies and employers to work with MIQ and “we can’t assume that this willingness will continue in the long-term”.
The workforce had come from many different employers, including Police, the NZ Defence Force, Aviation Security, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, district health boards, hotels and security firms.
Hipkins said the workforce had developed critical expertise in isolation and quarantine functions which needed to be preserved for future epidemic or pandemic responses.
The covid response minister asked for up to $73 million in capital funding to secure and upgrade a core network of three facilities with 500 rooms for the next three years, with $514m in operational funding over four years.
He also sought $40m to pay for the preparation of the business cases for the plan.
Those core facilities were to provide a higher standard of IPC than was achievable within current hotel contracts, including better ventilation and earthquake strengthening.
The business case he sought to develop would focus on delivering:
- North and South Island ‘hubs’ as a border and community quarantine response, with accessible links to health services, workforce, international airports and transport hubs.
- Sites with opportunities to increase the level of fit-for-purpose quarantine design by adapting the existing buildings or building new or additional quarantine capacity.
- Planning for a core, skilled, resilient workforce, and purpose-designed service model.
- Enduring capacity of approximately 1,000 rooms, with scope to increase in scale as needed by either building additional capacity or retaining relationships with hotels that enable rapid scale-up.
However, when the government’s accelerated its border reopening plans it also brought forward the timetable for decommissioning MIQ.
This resulted in Hipkins withdrawing his over $600m funding request and the development of a business case was put on a slightly slower track.
In early March, Hipkins advised cabinet that demand for places had fallen 95% and only 140 rooms were needed under the new border settings compared to the 5,800 rooms that the 32 hotels in the MIQ network had capacity for.
Hipkins said that as of March 6, 17 of the facilities were already empty, with a further eight expected to be empty within days, and the government decided to consolidate MIQ into four sites in Auckland and Christchurch.
He also advised that the proposal to enter long-term contracts for three sites and upgrade them was no longer required but officials would continue to work on a long-term quarantine solution for future pandemics.
He also pushed out the timeline for delivering the business case for the future system from September to December to ensure it “aligned with emerging pandemic preparedness work being led out of other agencies”.