Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve taken huge comfort in the knowledge that just about everyone I love is safely inside the fortress-like border that’s been erected around New Zealand. I have no doubt that every other Kiwi still living or trapped in the Covid red-zones of the world feels the same way. But this week’s announcement that returning citizens must now commit to a stay of at least six months, double the previous requirement of three, to avoid a NZ$3,100 (£1,600) fee for their managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) prioritises politics over their right to return.
The government’s official line on the issue is that the changes are being made in the interests of fairness and sustainability. In practice, the policy amounts to a thinly veiled deterrence strategy. A strategy with the additional bonus of delivering visible action in response to public restlessness following the recent series of lockdowns. It neither contributes meaningfully to meeting the cost of the policy nor makes the policy more equitable, but it does make for a satisfying user-pays narrative to placate resentment towards the border and those who cross it.
When the MIQ fee policy was first outlined in July 2020, the government admitted that it was expected to recover only about NZ$10m per year. The new, stricter policy is expected to recover an additional NZ$6m a year.
To put that in context, the total sum recovered over the course of a year may cover the cost of the MIQ system for approximately one week.
Meanwhile the degree to which it deters or even prevents Kiwis from exercising their right to return is unaccountably varied and situational. For some, dropping a couple of grand on a visit to New Zealand is of no more concern than a business class upgrade. For others it’s utterly prohibitive. Money isn’t the only factor; time and visa status are also critical concerns for Kiwis with commitments to their lives elsewhere.
The idea that this tightening of restriction on homecomings is being imposed in the interests of fairness or the financial sustainability of MIQ doesn’t wash. Without any meaningful mechanism to enforce the fee system, or recover debt from people who skip the country without fronting the cash, the policy amounts to an honesty box. The government has no way of knowing whether people intend to stay longer than six months, and no means to prevent them from leaving without paying should they choose.
So if this policy change isn’t going to substantially offset the cost of MIQ, disproportionately affects those with less money, and is effectively unenforceable, what’s it for?
When the user-pays model was first implemented, official briefings stressed that the fees were not intended to deter people from returning. To do so deliberately would stray dangerously close to denying citizens their human rights under international law. After eight months of escalating pressure on a system that was never designed to cater for this level of sustained demand, it’s hard not to see this change as an attempt to restrict the flow.
Pressure on the allocation system which decides who gets a spot in MIQ has grown massively over the last year, causing distress and confusion amongst Kiwi communities overseas. The system receives more than 100 formal complaints each week. When MIQ vouchers were released for June and July, a million booking attempts from around the world crashed the site. New Zealanders who need to get home urgently can apply for an emergency place, but more than half of applications are declined.
The timing of this announcement, so soon after border breaches and lockdowns prompted a groundswell of mutinous grumbling amongst the once-united team of five million, indicates that it’s political. The government understands that to keep a large group of people united under pressure, you need to nominate an “outgroup”.
Overseas-based Kiwis are perfect candidates. Many of us will become ineligible to vote in the next election if we’re unable to visit home. We are dispersed all over the world, making it next to impossible for us to organise. Most importantly, we aren’t very visible. While the political narrative at home centres on the plight of the long-suffering taxpayer, the heaviest costs of an inadequate MIQ system are borne by citizens outside the country, while its benefits are felt by those at home.
But our worth and right to belong as Kiwis isn’t dependent on the status of our tax return. We don’t reserve healthcare, education, or infrastructure solely for economically productive people. These are public goods, and we fund them because they’re an investment in our collective wellbeing. As a public health intervention, MIQ is no different.
Nonetheless, it’s easier for the government to turn up the heat on an underrepresented minority of New Zealanders than it is to acknowledge that scrutiny and criticism of the MIQ system is justified and necessary.
Sarah Habershon is a Berlin-based writer and consultant specialising in social policy and data-driven storytelling