Powhiri for NZDF Personnel at MIQ - Credit RNZ

Managed Isolation and Quarantine – A Kiwi Detainee’s View

Guest Author – Retired New Zealand Army Officer Gavin Lawrence

In August 2020, senior government advisors, Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche were appointed to review the border testing regime after revelations many border staff were not being tested for Covid-19.

The report found problems with communication, accountability, and clarity in the testing framework. It was a damning indictment which effectively pulled the rug out from under the Government’s assertions that all was well. To add emphasis to the level of embarrassment this has caused the Labour government is the fact that they ‘dumped’ the report in the public gaze on 18 December 2020, thus effectively avoiding much public scrutiny – for now.

This article offers a unique view of what is actually going on in New Zealand’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) from someone who has very recently ‘done their time’ as a detainee.

National Strategy

New Zealand has chosen a strategy “to eliminate COVID-19 and to stamp out transmission within affected clusters”[1] in its Covid-19 response, one of few countries in the world that has the geographical and societal capability of achieving such an ambitious objective.  So far, the objective has been mostly successful and the virus has been ‘eliminated’, with a few exceptions, at the border.  This article will examine if that success has been achieved on the basis of good luck rather than good management and what the implications have been for New Zealanders overseas.

The first aspect of the elimination strategy is largely achieved through border controls and a compulsory isolation period for all arrivals into the country.  The Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) system has been established to meet those requirements.  Currently, MIQ is controlled by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) with significant input from the Ministry of Health, District Health Boards (DHB) and the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF).  This group of agencies appear to have different individual perspectives on leadership, management, administration and enforcement of the broad powers the Government granted itself in the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 and its subsidiary legislation, regulation, amendments, orders and notices.  The second aspect of the elimination strategy, that of stamping out transmission with affected clusters, will not be examined here, beyond limited aspects where the two interact. 

MIQ Leadership and Management

While responsibility for MIQ currently rests with MBIE it is not clear to any degree which of the contributing agencies is actually “in charge”.  After several failings in security and control of detainees[2] the Government rushed to place the NZDF in titular control of MIQ facilities.  The NZDF role in MIQ will be examined later in this article, however many of the Government’s public statements of control resting with NZDF are belied by reality, where either Ministry of Health or DHB staff appear to be firmly “in control” even in the perception of NZDF personnel at those MIQ facilities.  NZDF personnel at the operational (facility) level appear to be largely being employed as window dressing to reinforce the Government position that NZDF are in charge of MIQ facilities.  Some lower-level coordination of site security (without any legal right to control) is being provided by NZDF Officers while Enlisted personnel are largely employed to record detainee’s post-isolation movement intentions; and record the room numbers of detainees leaving/returning from MIQ buildings for exercise or to smoke in nominated and security-fenced areas, external access to which is managed and patrolled by private security staff.

The contradiction between public statements by Government and the reality of MIQ at the operational (facility) level about who is actually in charge is the first and probably the most concerning issue at hand.  The recently released Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques highlighted the need for a clear chain of command and where the absence of such resulted in failings at multiple levels.  The consequences of such a failing in the Government’s strategy for combatting COVID-19 could be exponentially worse than the Christchurch attacks.

MIQ and New Zealanders Overseas

New Zealanders living overseas have borne the brunt of the MIQ requirements.  While every ex-pat Kiwi will acknowledge the load borne by their fellow citizens at home, there doesn’t appear to be the same recognition of what Kiwis overseas have gone through.  Firstly, the “team of five million” slogan which was widely used throughout the early stages of the COVID-19 response largely ignores the (anecdotally up to) 1 million New Zealanders overseas.  This set the stage for some highly inappropriate discussions within New Zealand which centred on the argument “they chose to leave New Zealand, why should they have the right to come back now?”  This article won’t delve into the origins and incitement of those arguments, however all that is required is to refer to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Section 18(2) which states “Every New Zealand citizen has the right to enter New Zealand.”

The other aspect of ex-pat Kiwis COVID-19 experience that seems to have been missed by their compatriots at home is that, in many cases, ex-pat Kiwis have had a far longer, more restrictive and difficult COVID-19 experience depending on where they have been located.  Most ex-pat Kiwis have been working without local (or New Zealand) Government assistance, many have lost jobs because of COVID and virtually all have survived rampant community infection rates as well as enforced lockdowns far longer and more restrictive than in New Zealand.  In the vast majority of cases, ex-pat Kiwis have survived through far greater hardships than those experienced in New Zealand without any request for or expectation of help.  The only thing that some have asked for is to exercise their right to entry back into New Zealand because their overseas situation is no longer tenable or they simply need a break before they can continue in their adopted countries.

Ex-pat Kiwis generally understand the Government’s COVID-19 strategy, and the need for stringent border controls to prevent leakage of the virus into the New Zealand population.  What most ex-pat Kiwis are having difficulty understanding is the manner in which MIQ is being implemented.  There are a number of aspects of the MIQ system which appear to have fallen to the “lowest common denominator” and that is the over-riding issue that seems to be driving MIQ towards a cliff-edge. 

From the perspective of cost, the current MIQ system is costing the New Zealand tax payer (which, incidentally includes many of the people currently domiciled overseas) in the vicinity of $2.4 million per day[3].  There have been numerous proposals and suggestions to government by private and public sector organisations on how this cost could be significantly reduced, or at least how for the same cost, the number of people who are admitted into the system could be increased.  The Government has chosen largely to ignore those proposals.

Self-Isolation

One amendment to the current “one size fits all” MIQ system could be the introduction of a risk-assessed self-isolation option.  While this proposal has been rejected previously by Government, except for a select few, the reason for rejection warrants scrutiny.  The current argument against such a solution is that people “can’t be trusted” to self-isolate.  That argument is spurious and insulting to the vast majority of returnees who can “be trusted”.  The solution, rather than a blanket policy to manage isolation in its current form is to allow returnees who have the means and resources, to submit self-isolation plans for risk assessment and subsequent approval, amended approval or rejection.  If 50 percent of returnees were able to demonstrate a self-isolation plan which meets risk assessment the Government would be able to double the number of its citizens or residents returning, or roughly halve the cost of current MIQ expenditure for the same number of returnees.

What such a self-isolation option would require, is a level of intelligent risk assessment applied to the review and approval (or otherwise) of each managed isolation plan submitted by a returnee – if they choose to do so and have the means, support and infrastructure to achieve it.  This risk assessment appears to be the downfall of such a scheme, where the government is unwilling or unable to find and allocate sufficiently capable risk assessors into the process.  The reversion to the “lowest common denominator” where nobody can be trusted to self-isolate is the result; as well as there being little or no flexibility in the MIQ system. 

Of course, every self-isolation plan would need to have safeguards installed to ensure that people are doing what they committed to in their plan.  This could be achieved in graduated levels (based on the risk assessment) from rejection of the plan, electronic monitoring, enforcement authority monitoring, random police visits and any number of other means.  What seems to be missing is the application of common sense to the situation as well as the apparent lack of willingness, at any step in the MIQ process, to make a difficult decision.  At many levels in the MIQ system which appear to reflect the current attitudes of New Zealand Government leaders and bureaucrats, there seems to be a reluctance to take responsibility for fear of being held accountable.  Successful leaders have attitudes which relish responsibility and welcome accountability.  There is a noticeable gap between the two attitudes in New Zealand at present.

The Contributing Agencies

As earlier discussed, there are clear discrepancies between public announcements and reality about command and control of MIQ at the operational (facility) level.  From first-hand observation and discussions with a range of people working within various MIQ facilities, here are some observations:

Ministry of Health/DHB’s – In every case from which there is first-hand knowledge, either Ministry of Health or DHBs are clearly and firmly in control.  Unfortunately, the staff from these agencies are generally unskilled in planning, execution, leadership and management of this kind of activity.  These health officials would be best utilised to their strength, which is setting policy to achieve the medical outcomes required of the MIQ system.  Their access to and knowledge of the science-based information on pandemic management is invaluable, however their efforts seem to be focused on the control of the MIQ process, to the detriment of their health-related outputs.  This was clearly demonstrated in one case where nursing and NZDF staff in a MIQ facility were completely uninformed about what was going on in their own facility, with information that was pertinent to their work and safety being withheld by the DHB “manager” of the facility.  The fact revealed by Simpson and Roche that the Ministry of Health was not part of the Whole of Government response group speaks volumes.

Staff and other detainees were unaware of positive day-3 tests returned by travellers on a particular flight (and in the same facility) until they received the information via the media.  Even then, information as to the proximity of the positive cases on the inbound aircraft was withheld, citing a policy of only informing passengers two rows in either direction of the positive cases.  That policy was clearly developed assuming airborne transmission in a domestic situation (narrow-body aircraft on short-haul flights) and shows a lack of understanding of potential infection vectors on a long-haul flight in a wide-body aircraft.  Multiple studies have shown that risk of infection (when masked) is “virtually non-existent” on wide-body aircraft.[4]  Surface transmission in communal areas (in particular lavatories) are likely to be the greatest infection risk vector on such a long-haul flight and with information as to where the positive cases were seated other passengers, nursing staff and even the Ministry/DHB staff themselves can better assess risk of exposure.  Information was being withheld on the grounds of privacy where, with a little effort on the part of the Ministry/DHB staff, it could have been anonymised and released to the benefit of a number of groups, including the other passengers on the flight. 

Several interactions, first-hand, observed and reported, between Ministry/DHB staff and other MIQ staff, as well as Ministry/DHB staff and detainees, have demonstrated the lack of leadership, management and communication skills of Ministry/DHB personnel.  In most cases Ministry/DHB staff will revert to a template or check-list as opposed to applying common sense to a given situation.  This has resulted in conflict between supposedly cooperating agencies or between Ministry/DHB staff and detainees, which could have been avoided had sound leadership, management or communication skills been applied.  Ministry of Health and DHB staff are health bureaucrats and are assumed to be good at their jobs.  They should be working to their strengths in support of the MIQ system, rather than stepping outside their skill set in order to take control.

Nursing Staff – The nursing staff are the true unsung heroes of the MIQ system.  They are placed in direct contact with COVID-19 positive people, manage those people through testing, diagnosis and treatment and do so in a hostile and difficult working environment.  They also bear the full brunt of dealing with the mental health issues associated with MIQ in all detainees.  Conversations with nursing staff have uncovered the situation where nurses are being denied access to pertinent health information (by DHB staff), have been ignored when they make practical health recommendations and are denied personal protective equipment (PPE) that meets gold-standard in infectious disease control.  They work long shifts, apparently without financial reward as recompense for the risk that they are exposed to.  They do so, without exception that was observed or reported, with good humour and dedication. 

Despite international information on the efficacy of various types of masks being available for many months, why did it take until 26 November 2020 for the Ministry of Health to amend its guidance[5] and start issuing N95/P2 masks to MIQ nursing staff?  Until then nurses were aware and afraid of the fact that surgical masks were not providing them with sufficient protection against infection.  The next issue is the provision of suitable eye protection, without which an N95/P2 mask is only providing 50% of the protection required against airborne vectors of potential transmission.

If, after the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing staff aren’t meaningfully recognised and rewarded for the role that they have played in achieving the Government’s COVID-19 strategy, New Zealanders should be ashamed of themselves.

Hotels – On the whole hotel management and staff are delivering an excellent service for what is likely to be a discounted rate.  During the period where international visitors to New Zealand has largely ceased, the hotel industry has been provided a, no doubt welcome, lifeline with Government use of hotels as MIQ facilities.  It is assumed that MBIE is responsible for the selection, negotiation and contract management of hotel facilities being used in the MIQ system, however catering is the one area where quality appears to fluctuate wildly between different facilities.  Catering options for a wide range of dietary and religious needs are provided, however a common theme is that a “healthy” option is lacking in meal selection.  Food becomes a significant feature of the isolation experience and when combined with restrictive exercise options[6], many MIQ staff and detainees who are dining in MIQ facilities report significant weight-gain during their time in the MIQ system.  Perhaps the Ministry of Health, DHB or NZDF (who all have dietician and nutritionist expertise in-house) could be more involved in the management of healthy catering, or at least the development of a healthy “option” in the MIQ catering.

Private Security Staff – Private security firms are providing the vast majority of the security personnel for MIQ facilities.  There is a security guard in every MIQ facility corridor with direct view of detainees’ doors – a role that could easily be achieved using CCTV or motion sensor technology, a well-appointed control facility and some sort of radio-dispatched quick reaction team.  Instead, huge numbers of young, minimally trained employees are sitting on chairs at the end of every hotel corridor for hours on end, with varying levels of effectiveness.  These staff have little or no legal status or authority to detain (in a similar situation to the NZDF personnel) so are merely observers or at best, a deterrent.  Private security staff control all access points to MIQ facilities in support of NZ Police. There are approximately 27,000 private security guards in NZ and the model of the former remand prison at Mt Eden, where the company was heavily fined for escapes, would provide the right incentives for training and supervision.

NZ Police – NZ Police provide the only resources able to enforce MIQ security.  This appears to be 1-2 uniformed staff at each facility on a 24-hour basis.  It appears that the NZ Police resources are purely there to respond to any reports from Private Security staff of a breach in MIQ security, or support any Ministry of Health/DHB staff in the enforcement of the COVID-19 powers granted to certain health officials.  NZ Police seem to be stationed in high visibility areas, along with uniformed NZDF personnel.

NZDF Personnel – The NZDF has deployed up to 1200 personnel in support of Government’s COVID-19 response under the banner “Op PROTECT”.  While NZDF support was initially focused on logistical and coordination roles, the scope of NZDF involvement increased substantially after several breaches of MIQ security and the Government decision to place NZDF “in control” of the MIQ system.  The level of control that NZDF has in reality appears to be vastly different from that which is promoted by the Government via the media.  Also, it is baffling that NZDF would appoint a former pilot to head this deployment rather than a career logistician since this is, from a military perspective, largely a logistical exercise.  Air Commodore Darryn “Digby” Webb, who was organising repatriation flights, became the NZDF face of the MIQ system in the face of the removal of the former Police Commissioner. While it is recognised that he is an accomplished senior Officer in the NZDF, his background and expertise was diametrically opposed to the skill set that would be assumed to be appropriate for this role.  Fortunately, this has been rectified by the appointment of a career logistician as the replacement for Air Commodore Webb, in the person of Brigadier Jim Bliss.

As previously discussed, at the operational (facility) level the Ministry of Health and DHBs appear to be clearly in control and this is largely unchallenged by NZDF personnel at that level.  Relatively junior NZDF Officers are being placed in titular charge of individual MIQ facilities but have no statutory authority to direct any contributing agency’s staff in any way.  It is interesting that uniformed NZDF personnel are stationed in high-visibility areas (along with NZ Police), but have no formal role in the security of the facilities and in some cases don’t even have the communications equipment to call for support in the event that they observe a breach of MIQ security. 

Discussions with a number of junior (Officer, Non-Commissioned Officer and Enlisted) NZDF personnel at MIQ facilities largely come up with the same conclusions and questions from the NZDF personnel themselves.  They recognise that they are nothing more than highly visible window dressing, they recognise that they have no substantial role in security of MIQ facilities and they all wonder how long that they will be kept away from their units, families, training and most importantly, primary role.  The question that is becoming increasingly asked is “how many rotations of this am I going to have to do?”

As has been raised in other articles[7], the NZDF is not suited to this kind of sustained deployment and are not achieving anything other than a maintaining a visible military presence at MIQ facilities.  Employing NZDF as a quick reaction resource to provide logistical and coordination support to Government in its initial response is a logical and sound choice.  Retaining NZDF in their current MIQ role is a substantial waste of NZDF resources for little more than political window-dressing.  The service chiefs have all been disturbingly silent about this situation while their personnel have been bearing the brunt.  Of the NZDF values that are required of all members of the organisation, it appears that Tū Kaha and Tū Maia have been missing from the leadership.  It is past time that NZDF leaders develop and present to Government an exit plan; then insist that it is enacted immediately.

In Closing

The challenge of operating MIQ is not going to go away quickly. That’s not to say that the way these systems are being operated should not be substantially re-thought. In essence, it is a broken system and the only reason New Zealand has not had a substantial further outbreak is largely good luck rather than good management.

The estimated current wait time to enter NZ for citizens is 78 days. The operation of the MIQ facilities is rudderless. Throwing more money, committees and boards at the problem, as the Government announced on 18 Dec will not bring more good luck. It will enrich some people and groups. It will continue to disadvantage Kiwis stuck abroad. And it will not strengthen our national security. All it will do is provide a weak excuse for a Government to say we did our best. That is simply not good enough.


[1] NZ Govt COVID-19 National Action Plan 3

[2] While the descriptor “Guest” is widely used throughout the MIQ system, “Detainee” is far more accurate by etymology and description as per the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Isolation and Quarantine) Order 2020

[3] Radio New Zealand – Managed isolation, quarantine costing $2.4m a day, figures show

Katie Todd  22/11/2020

[4] US Department of Defense and United Airlines studies reported by ABCNews https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/risk-covid-19-exposure-planes-virtually-nonexistent-masked/story?id=73616599

[5] New Zealand Ministry of Health Media release 26 November 2020

[6] Exercise facilities vary a great deal between MIQ facilities based on location and position.

[7] https://unclas.com/2020/08/15/the-nzdf-arent-handbag-checkers/

About the Author

Gavin Lawrence spent nearly 20 years in the New Zealand Army as an Infantry Officer.  Since his retirement from the Army he has worked in New Zealand and overseas as a senior executive in the public and private sector.  He has experience in a range of industries including Court services, facilities management, physical security and aviation training.  Gavin is currently the Vice President of Global Operations for a USA high-technology chemical manufacturer which specialises in environmentally friendly chemicals for the oil and gas industry.  He lives in Dubai and travels extensively.