In a sweeping 140-page ruling, a court slammed New Zealand’s pandemic quarantine system, claiming that the government failed to consider particular circumstances, so infringing on Kiwis’ freedom to enter their own nation, as contained in the country’s Bill of Rights.
At the start of the pandemic, New Zealand implemented a tight “managed isolation and quarantine” (MIQ) regime.
The system is credited with keeping Aotearoa free of COVID-19 for the majority of the last two years, but Kiwis who were abroad when it was implemented found it extremely difficult to acquire a room in MIQ in order to return home.
To cope with demand, the New Zealand government established a ‘virtual lobby,’ which served as a waiting area for Kiwis eager to book MIQ rooms as soon as they were available. According to the judge, this was a lottery, and the conditions for securing a room through an emergency distribution mechanism were construed too narrowly.
As a result, New Zealanders who had been forced to wait an unacceptable amount of time to return home were not given priority. The administration failed to establish why an online system that prioritized residents who had experienced an unreasonable delay couldn’t be implemented, the judge decided.
A group of expatriate Kiwis filed a lawsuit, alleging that the government had violated New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, which provides citizens the right of return.
The judge agreed that MIQ was justified in keeping COVID-19 out of New Zealand to protect public health, but chastised the government for failing to take individual circumstances into account.
“The emergency allocation process as it operated was an inadequate method of seeking to ensure that New Zealanders could return if they were facing unreasonable delays or had a need to return that warranted priority,” Justice Mallon said.
“It was inevitable that the system would operate unjustly in some individual cases because of this.”
MIQ has processed 229,787 passengers since its inception, but the system is being phased out as New Zealand reopens its borders to the rest of the globe. Every 28 days, 12,600 people in 9000 rooms went through MIQ at its peak.
There are just 56 persons in isolation as of Wednesday, spread over 46 isolation rooms.
Following the verdict, Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s COVID-19 response minister, defended MIQ, stating it was the “least worst choice.”
“We have long acknowledged the difficult trade-offs we’ve had to make in our Covid-19 response to save lives and the effects of those decisions on all New Zealanders, particularly those living abroad,” Hipkins said.