Wednesday 24 February 2021

Border Costs

Cecile Meier walks us through some of the costs of a border system that has neither been able to safely scale up to meet need, nor able to find any reasonable way of prioritising entry into those scarce MIQ spaces.

When Zane Gillbee hugged his family goodbye in South Africa before moving to Wellington, his daughter Lyla was still a baby and his son Callum a happy seven-year-old.

Lyla is now a potty-trained, walking, talking two-and-a-half-year-old and Gillbee has missed it all.

Callum, who is about to turn 9, has been diagnosed with separation anxiety and is on medication for it.

Zane Gillbee is one of the hundreds of skilled migrants who moved to New Zealand for a better life before Covid-19 hit, expecting his family to follow.

There are a lot of people in this situation, but not so many that it would be impossible to fix. 

A Facebook group for families split from New Zealand migrants counts 1600 members sharing increasingly desperate stories.

Immigration lawyer Katy Armstrong conducted a survey through the group, which 700 odd people completed, including 500 who had children.

She estimated the total number of split families of temporary visa holders in New Zealand to be about 2000.

The MIQ system has 4500 rooms. If there are 2000 split families, then that would be about half of the system's fortnightly capacity to get the job done.

The government provided hundreds of MIQ slots for the Auckland boat race. As of late January, Immigration had issued 753 visas for the Cup, including at least a couple hundred dependents of Cup workers. But MBIE can't say how many rooms they've taken up. I suspect it's because they don't want anyone to know. It would be feasible to know. The Immigration side of MBIE knows to whom visas were extended for the Cup. The MIQ side of MBIE knows who was in each room. All it would take it running the one list beside the other to see if the names from the one list match up with names on the other list. 

There simply is no good way for the government to be picking and choosing who should get these scarce spaces. Lots of Kiwis just hate foreigners and are happy for migrants with families abroad to get the shaft, so there's little political pressure to solve this. Lots of Kiwis like boats. So we get the outcomes we get. 

But there is a good way to expand capacity in the system so that more people can travel safely. Testing before travel will knock back the number of positive cases arriving here. If the government ever gets around to implementing the most obvious way of strengthening safety in the border system, that too can help enable greater capacity. 

Daily saliva-based PCR testing makes each person in MIQ far less risky because they can quickly be shuttled to JetPark if they're found to be infected. That means far less risk of infecting an MIQ worker or another MIQ visitor. Combine it with daily testing of every border worker, and there's far less risk of the virus getting out of the border system. You just won't get into spots where you're not sure where it came from, if every single person in the border system is tested daily. 

Because saliva collection doesn't require nurses, another bottleneck in the system is eased.

Because each infection is less likely to be transmitted, some facilities that might not have been safe as MIQ facilities could be safe when combined with daily testing, with pre-flight testing, and with triaging of visitors by Covid-rates in their country of origin. Australia is going to be low risk even when they're having a minor outbreak. America is going to be higher risk for a while. Safe the more secure facilities for the folks coming in from riskier places, open up a few more facilities for people coming in from less risky places, and run daily testing to keep the whole thing in order. 

Safely expanding MIQ capacity matters. We're likely to be stuck with this for the rest of the year, if vaccine roll-out will only be happening in the second half of the year. The costs of keeping things as they are for families like the ones Meyer has spoken with - they're just too high. 

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