By Emily Clark, ABC Reporter
Cameron Laing thought he had planned his Christmas trip home to New Zealand perfectly.
He was due to arrive in Auckland from the United Kingdom on 18 December and seven days in hotel quarantine would have had him seeing his family on Christmas Day.
For New Zealanders living abroad, securing a place in the country’s managed isolation facilities is extremely difficult.
Unlike Australia’s hotel quarantine system, which automatically allocates rooms to passengers booked on incoming flights, New Zealand’s system is a lottery.
And to secure a room, those wishing to return home have to first win the hotel quarantine lottery, then find a seat on a flight.
Laing had both and was due to be released on Christmas Eve at the earliest and Christmas Day at the latest.
But on Tuesday last week, the New Zealand Government extended his stay after a case of Omicron was detected on his flight.
Despite being just a short drive away, he spent Christmas speaking to his family on Skype.
Laing said his initial reaction was one of “devastation”.
“Because the whole purpose of the trip was to come home for Christmas Day to see my family I haven’t seen for a long time,” he said.
“But secondly, it was frustration because had travellers been given adequate notice that the discretion to extend people’s stays in managed isolation was going to be exercised invariably when a person on your flight tests positive for Omicron, I would have planned for that by travelling to New Zealand much earlier.”
New Zealand’s Ministry of Health said spending the extra three days in a managed facility helped keep Omicron out of the community.
“It’s important to note that people can return a positive result late in their infection cycle, even after returning multiple negative results,” a spokesperson said.
“We acknowledge that this may cause inconvenience for some people, however, Covid-19 isn’t taking a break for Christmas and it is important we remain vigilant over the festive season.”
NZ buys time for boosters
NZ PM Jacinda Ardern addresses a press conference from a lectern in Wellington, New Zealand.
In Australia, the emergence of Omicron has seen the number of cases, hospitalisations and ICU patients trend upwards, breaking daily records.
There have been some changes to mask mandates and check-in requirements, but mostly the message from the federal and New South Wales governments to Australians throughout the Omicron outbreak has been one of “personal responsibility”.
But across the ditch in New Zealand, the government is determined to keep Omicron out for as long as possible.
Despite 91 percent of New Zealanders having two shots of Pfizer’s vaccine and a national seven-day rolling average daily case number of 51, the government pulled back on a promise to make getting home easier for Kiwis stranded abroad.
The message there is that Omicron is another challenge to manage in an enduring pandemic and New Zealand is not ready to live with the virus.
So far, omicron has only been found in New Zealand’s hotel quarantine facilities and last week, Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins announced changes that impact all incoming travellers.
The government announced: “All stays in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) are extended to 10 days. This replaces the seven-day stay in MIQ followed by the requirement to self-isolate at home for three days after leaving MIQ.”
The date of the next lottery to obtain a spot in the quarantine system was also delayed and the pre-departure testing window was reduced from 72 hours to 48.
And the plan to allow arrivals from Australia to isolate at home from 17 January was also changed, pushing back that date until late February.
Hipkins also announced New Zealand would shorten the gap between second vaccine doses and boosters from six to four months, meaning 82 percent of vaccinated citizens would be due for a booster by February.
“Any day we don’t have it in New Zealand is a day we can be better prepared,” he said.
At the time, Ardern said “it’s unfortunately not a case of if, but when” Omicron spreads in New Zealand.
“So we are doing everything we can to make sure we are prepared,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and (DPMC) Cabinet Covid Group told the ABC 10 days of hotel quarantine offered “the best chance of preventing Omicron from getting into the community while the vaccinated population in New Zealand get their booster shots.
Challenging the quarantine system
For Laing, changes designed to prevent the spread of Omicron meant Christmas was spent in hotel quarantine, but for many New Zealanders border restrictions have made it impossible to get home at all.
Now the legality of some of the restrictions around New Zealand’s international border will be reviewed in court.
New Zealand has a Bill of Rights, and section 18 says: “Every New Zealand citizen has the right to enter New Zealand.”
On 25 January, a judicial review will be held after the group Grounded Kiwis challenged the public health orders and the hotel quarantine lottery system, alleging these restrictions breach New Zealanders’ right to enter their country.
Alexandra Birt, spokesperson for the group Grounded Kiwis, told the ABC that delaying the start of home isolation for arrivals from Australia left “tens of thousands” of New Zealanders in limbo.
“For a lot of people … they have been stuck in Australia since the trans-Tasman bubble closed … so they’ve been waiting months and months,” she said.
“To have that taken away from them again is just heart-breaking.”
Birt said the decision to extend hotel quarantine was a huge blow to families who have failed to win the room lottery so far.
“You enter your passport number to get a place, then after an hour the system generates a number for you and that number is your place in the queue. And so say there might be 3000 rooms available, you wait an hour, spin the wheel and you get place number 19,000, you know that you’re never going to get one of those 3000 rooms,” she said.
“It’s a completely randomised system every time.
“People have been through this for months and then in November they said ‘great, I’ll wait until January … I know on the 17th I can isolate at home and I don’t need to enter this lottery anymore’ and now these people are left stuck.”
The next lottery will be held on 6 January.
A man in a mask pushes a suitcase trolley at Sydney airport, in front of a sign with silver fern that says: “We’ve missed you”.
The New Zealand government said it could not comment on the legal challenge.
But a spokesperson for the DPMC Covid Group said it recognised people travelling home for Christmas, “and others in Australia who have been waiting to get home” would face further disruptions.
“We are working through the implications for managed isolation and quarantine availability to help people get home as soon as possible,” they said.
When announcing the change, Hipkins said keeping hotel quarantine and the lottery in place until the end of February “will increase New Zealand’s overall protection and slow Omicron’s eventual spread”.
Birt said the lottery system was affecting the mental health of New Zealanders both inside and outside the country.
“A lot of people have felt really powerless – there’s nothing they can do,” she said.
“This system exists and it’s damaging them and they just have to kind of survive it.”
The politics of an Omicron outbreak
When New Zealand moved away from its world-famous elimination strategy, it was considered a risk to Ardern politically.
Some commentators in New Zealand wrote about the change feeling like whiplash, others said they were grieving the idea of Covid-zero.
Professor of politics at Massey University Richard Shaw said there was still very little tolerance for increasing case numbers in New Zealand.
He said the political risk an Omicron outbreak would bring was “significant”.
“There has never been widespread subscription to the idea that we should let it rip, and cope with it,” Professor Shaw said.
“And so I think there’s quite a high risk that Omicron gets out, particularly before some of the inequities in the vaccination rollout get mopped up.”
Over the Christmas weekend, New Zealand recorded 126 new cases of Covid-19, significantly down from the height of its Delta outbreak.
New Zealand authorities have indicated it is a matter of time before Omicron breaches the border facilities.
Professor Shaw said that will be difficult for the broader community inside New Zealand to comprehend.
“It’s been 18 months, of being socialised into an approach that says we can keep it out and we can beat it,” he said.
“If it does result in high hospitalisation rates and high death rates, there is relatively little tolerance for that.
“The risk to the government would be very high.”
What that translates to at this current moment in the pandemic is public sentiment on the side of so-called fortress New Zealand, according to Shaw.
“There is some awareness that there is anguish on the part of people who are overseas who want to come back here … but I don’t think there is anybody who would be prepared to accept the cost of allowing New Zealanders back in, as per the original plan,” he said.
For those who want to come home, and New Zealanders desperate to leave the country to see family abroad, there are an increasing number of questions about the border.
“Are we going to do this forever? Is this how New Zealand’s approach is going to be at the border for this and any other variants or even any other future pandemics? Is it acceptable just to lock out your citizens, and that’s one of the reasons we’re bringing the case as well, because we think it’s important for a precedent perspective,” Grounded Kiwis spokesperson Birt said.
“What we’ve seen from these recent changes is New Zealand is going to continue acting in this way, there’s going to be a revert back to harsh border settings and it seems like that is going to be a constant.”