As New Zealand announces it is bringing an end to the system of managed isolation quarantine (MIQ) for all flight arrivals, I’ve been reflecting on our own experience. We arrived back in New Zealand at midnight on new year’s day – after 24 hours flying and about three hours in Singapore transit – without knowing where we were going next.
To land in New Zealand during these pandemic times has been to experience the full effect of a country working seriously to keep Covid out – and doing a great job of it, especially compared to pretty much every other country.
In the airport terminal we went through no less than seven separate checkpoints before we emerged into the night. But we were not to be allowed to go home just yet. There was the small matter of 10 days in an MIQ facility.
The presence of police and army personnel made it abundantly clear this whole Covid containment idea was a serious operation being run with military precision. As soon as we were off the bus and inside the hotel the army, in full camouflage gear, were shutting the gates behind us. In the early days of MIQ, people were apt to try to escape. No chance of that now.
Honestly, my main concern about MIQ was not the accommodation or the food, it was 10 days in the same room with my partner of 30 years. What truer test of a marriage could there be? My married friends, of both sexes, all said the same thing – they had never spent 10 days in one room with their partner – and they were not sure if they could. So it felt like a challenge and we both went into it with good humour determined to remain calm; we’d be fine.
Inertia set in pretty quickly and I was soon camped out on the bed with book, phone and laptop. We weren’t allowed to go for our daily 30-minute yard walk until our first test results had come back, which wasn’t until day 2.
We ordered a supermarket delivery. First thing on the list was beer. This was no time to be having a dry January. D wanted to get in a sharp knife for cutting fruit. I persuaded her this was inadvisable.
Our accommodation was very comfortable – 4 star – and the food was excellent; almost too good and certainly plentiful. With the generous servings and lack of proper exercise, I put on 2kg in 10 days.
Peeking to the side out of our window, we could see the clear blue sky. It was 30 degrees outside, a bit of a contrast from the grey and cold English winter we had come from.
The phone rang and we were told our tests had come back negative, so we could book a 30 minute walk. At the allotted time, we took the lift down to the lobby, masked up and sanitising as we went, distancing at all times. Contact was limited to people from our flight, but in groups of less than 10. There was an army checkpoint before entry into the exercise area. We were directed to the hotel forecourt, fenced off from the outside world; it was about the size of a tennis court.
We walked round and round for half an hour. The army guards made it clear we could only walk in one direction and no stopping.
You can get used to long-haul travel, but the jet lag never gets easier. The sleep deprivation played havoc with my mind – and my blood pressure. A door banged in a neighbouring room and I was pulled out of a deep sleep mid-afternoon. I dozed off and the door banged again. FFS, you’re not allowed out of your room! WTF are you doing opening and banging your door shut repeatedly?!!
MIQ has undoubtedly been controversial in New Zealand, but particularly with those overseas trying to get back in. Some people question whether this level of quarantine is necessary, and that maybe we should be allowed to isolate at home after our flight.
Despite the success of the government’s containment strategy, it has not met with approval from the ‘just let it rip’ brigade. There is also a lot of ill-feeling amongst NZ’ers overseas wanting to return about the unfairness of the lottery system for allocating quarantine slots. A lack of consistency in applying the rules hasn’t helped matters – allowing sports teams and even a DJ into the country while ordinary folk are unable to return to see dying loved ones. Some people have been trying for months to get back in, but there aren’t enough rooms available at any one time. Typically, there would 20,000 people in the lottery queue for 2,000 slots.
The negative publicity campaign built momentum last year with a group calling themselves Grounded Kiwis crowdfunding a legal challenge to the NZ Government for infringement of freedom of movement. In January, a pregnant reporter stuck in Afghanistan claimed she had been refused a compassionate MIQ slot, going as far as to allege that the Taliban had been more considerate than NZ immigration authorities. She worked the global media well – rather too well for some people’s liking (Fox News?) – and eventually secured her return to NZ. A couple of days later, coincidentally, the NZ Government announced it would phase out the MIQ system and allow new arrivals to isolate at home, from 27 February.
No doubt we had been fortunate to get the quarantine slot, though I had to pay my travel agent to sit on the online lobby and secure it, so the whole thing hasn’t been cheap. But the actual MIQ facilities were excellent. Clearly there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work going on to secure people’s health and well-being. There were staff in the hotel at the end of a phone for anyone struggling with mental health issues. The staff were all very friendly and the whole operation was calm and professionally run. It was like being in an open prison, with better food and more civility.
By the mid-point of our stay, it started to feel a lot like Groundhog Day. The sameness brought on a kind of delirium. Around 8am there’d be a knock on the door and – mask on – I’d open it to find a brown paper bag with a cooked breakfast. The same thing happened at lunch time and dinner time. We never saw the delivery person.
I was still waking at 4am a week after we arrived. Six months spent on the other side of the world will do that to you. For the most part though, we kept our sense of humour and no harsh words were spoken. We established our zones and modes of behaviour in the room to keep things light and treat the whole quarantine time as an experience, hopefully not to be repeated.