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Frustration for New Zealand returnees as Covid quarantine waiting list hits 30,000

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Aleksandr Davydov/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Aleksandr Davydov/Alamy Stock Photo

Overseas New Zealanders trying to return home are facing a queue tens of thousands of people long, as the country reopens bookings to cross the border.

The country’s borders have been strictly controlled since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic – only citizens, permanent residents and a handful of essential workers can enter, and all of them must make a booking to spend two weeks in government-controlled quarantine (MIQ).

Demand for those spaces has vastly outpaced demand, with some hopeful returnees spending weeks refreshing the site, employing “MIQ assistants” or using bots to assist them secure a space.

Related: New Zealand police arrest pair trying to enter Auckland with ‘large amount’ of KFC

The scale of the problem facing those trapped overseas has now been revealed for the first time, as the government opened a “lobby” system for booking quarantine spaces, showing where people are in the queue. Many took to social media to express their frustration posting screenshots showing thousands of people ahead of them.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment confirmed that 31,800 people were in the queue on Monday, and 5,364 of them secured vouchers for rooms. The vouchers were released at 9am and all were gone within two and a half hours.

“I know many thousands of people missed out on vouchers in today’s release,” the joint head of MIQ, Megan Main, said in a statement. “I want to reassure people that there are still several thousand vouchers still to be released through to the end of the year. They will get other chances. There will be another large release of a few thousand vouchers early next week and there may also be another smaller one later this week.”

The government paused all new releases of quarantine rooms during the latest outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand, and only began releasing rooms again on Monday.

New Zealand is still battling to crush the Delta variant outbreak. A level 4 lockdown has managed to reduce daily case numbers to about 11-24 a day, but has not yet eliminated community transmission completely.

On Monday, prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Auckland, the centre of the outbreak, would move out of its level 4 lockdown into level 3 restrictions, which allow socially distanced services like takeaway food, at midnight on Tuesday. The rest of the country is at level 2 – no longer in lockdown, but with some restrictions on gathering size and mask-wearing.

Related: Against all odds: how New Zealand is bending the Delta curve

New Zealand reported 14 new cases on Tuesday, all but one of which were linked to existing infections. There are now 1,085 cases in the outbreak, 790 of which have recovered.

In total 71.6% of New Zealand’s eligible population (those aged 12 and over) have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 37.8% are fully vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Ardern announced fines would increase for those caught breaching the rules – the maximum fine for a person would increase to $1,000 to $12,000, and the maximum fine for companies from $1,000 to $15,000.

“Throughout our Covid work, our success has been really based on the fact that people by and large have been really compliant, and it’s meant on a number of occasions now we’ve been able to manage the virus successfully. However there has been the odd person that has broken the rules and put others at risk,” Ardern said.

The increases follow several high-profile cases of people breaching lockdown rules, including an Auckland couple that took a holiday to Wānaka in the South Island, a man who drove a caravan across the country, and two men arrested at the border with $100,000 and a boot-full of KFC.

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