6 October, 2021
Grounded man works to get Kiwis flying again
Two locals put a human face on the stress of separation. They talk to Janetta Mackay about the issues
When Mike Moore and his wife Vikashni first visited Devonport during a holiday in Auckland it reminded him of home. “For me it was quintessentially British,” he recalls.
The sight of the Esplanade Hotel and the old main street appealed during that short break from his executive job at Fiji Airways. Seven years ago, the couple decided to move to New Zealand. “I said if we’re going to stay here I want somewhere it feels really nice to come home for.”
Pre-global pandemic, Moore got his wish, heading away internationally two to three weeks a month to run workshops for airlines as a travel technology consultant, then flying happily home to Devonport.
Now, he is grounded, working less and by Zoom to differing time zones. “This was an enforced move to retirement,” the 64-year-old says.
But he’s been busier than ever, due to his involvement in the online Grounded Kiwis group. “I’ve been trying to help other people with their questions and concerns,” he says of the support group known also for lobbying for a fairer way of letting people in and out of the country.
Moore has been quoted in the media speaking for the group about MIQ allocations. “It’s a bit manic, with the new system,” he tells the Flagstaff. “They say it is fair, but the chances are the same whether you’re entering the draw for the first time or have been waiting for months.”
In its first week, 25,000 people tried to get a spot in an isolation hotel. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ascribed much of this demand to people wanting a Christmas holiday at home, but Moore says that is untrue and downplays overall numbers impacted.
More spots were made available in the system this month than in December and all were snapped up.
There could be as many as 200,000 Kiwis wanting to come home, Moore says, adding “we honestly don’t know”. Efforts to get data have been unsuccessful, but Moore is sure “the number is in six digits, not five”.
Since people first registered on the MIQ site over a year ago some have just given up applying for MIQ places, he says. “Some people say my problem isn’t as bad as some other people, I’m going to step away.”
Others are holding off applying for now, hoping vaccination and testing will usher in home isolation.
Moore is frustrated by how opaque the system is and says MIQ is operating below capacity. Emergency allocations are also extremely limited and inflexible. “People don’t die to order,” he says.
His own personal experience in trying to get a room is what led Moore to Grounded Kiwis. In May, his brother, who was bi-polar, died suddenly. “I was the go-to person for his son and daughter. Not being able to be there was awful.”
Moore told his adult niece and nephew he would try to get vaccinated and come over to the UK to support them after his wife had scheduled surgery. “That’s when we found we couldn’t come home.”
Since then he has heard many other stories of separated families, including people who have been brought into New Zealand to work, but are now leaving.
One man told him: “When I left my son was a child, now his voice has broken.” Another had a son in a coma in Canada so had to travel, taking a chance on getting back some day.
People – including a number of peninsula locals he knows of – are jumping through so many hoops, Moore says.
He and his wife still want to visit the UK, but having come very much at the back of the MIQ lobby list – No. 24,893 of 25,000 – it won’t be this year, unless the system changes.
Moore’s prescription for that is for the government to first free up more rooms and then move away from mandatory MIQ.
“Insist on vaccinations, testing pre and after flight, saliva kits at home and isolation at home. Every other country in the world is doing this.”
Australia is looking at reopening in December. Yet New Zealand is only talking about running a small trial of business people self-isolating, when it could tap into large overseas data sets on what is already working.
The country’s initial Covid-19 response of going hard and early was correct, says Moore, but Delta has changed things and the world has changed.
Insular thinking is eroding early advantages, he says. “We’re going to end up with a country that is bankrupt.”
Moore believes travel will bounce back, especially for leisure. “There’s huge pent-up demand.”
In the UK over summer, passenger numbers were up to 75 per cent of pre-pandemic loads. “Vaccination status will become built in, the same way as visas.” Business travel may be slower to recover, says Moore, given it is highly discretionary.
In the meantime, those Kiwis who need to travel but can’t can add their chapters to the stories Grounded Kiwis collates.
“It’s hard to keep on doing it, it’s emotionally gruelling,” says Moore. “You go on the Facebook page and there’s more stories and more stories and I’m still dealing with the fact that I can’t go and see my own family.”
Hope dwindles for losers in government’s MIQ lottery
Dugald MacDonald and his wife June have all but given up hope of securing a spot in MIQ, despite spending many harrowing months trying.
MacDonald’s mother died in Scotland in mid-2020, and in May this year his mother-in-law, over whom his wife has guardianship, was hospitalised and had to be admitted to a dementia home.
“We’ve got no end of things to try to sort,” he says.
For the long-time Devonport residents who moved to Takapuna five months ago not being able to get home to Scotland last year was tough. But it was easier to be resigned about that then than the plight they and thousands of others still find themselves in.
“There was no chance of going back last year,” says MacDonald. Recent months have been an altogether more frustrating scenario. “You want some kind of certainty.”
To allow a trip to Edinburgh where he grew up, the busy technology executive has been grappling with the vagaries of the MIQ system to secure a spot in an insolation hotel for the couple’s return to New Zealand.
They have lived here for nearly 30 years. (MacDonald was actually born in Christchurch, when his Scots father, a geologist, worked there for a couple of years.)
In the new MIQ lobby booking system – introduced by the government last month to replace the cruel need to search against the clock – MacDonald’s number hasn’t come up for one of the few thousand places available at a time. In the first lobby he ranked in the 24,000s and in second lobby in the 11,000s. It’s a lottery, he says, with few winners.
While he appreciates the trickiness of prioritising, he thinks the government could have done more, earlier, to organise systems. “The whole MIQ seems like it didn’t have any care.”
MacDonald says reading stories on the Grounded Kiwis website is heart-wrenching. He is quick to point out the plight of others worse off than he is. But he wonders if some New Zealanders realise quite how hard a time some people are having. There seems to be something of a public view that those caught abroad have only themselves to blame for not returning earlier, he says.
This overlooks that life is complex and people’s situations vary, he believes, meaning many were not able to drop everything to get back when the call was made by the government before it closed the borders last year.
A complacency around the vaccine rollout also seems to have developed before the Covid-19 Delta variant arrived, he says, costing valuable months of preparedness. Now the issues are around priorities and transparency. He also sees a need to ready more ICU beds and for the government to lay out and create a clearer pathway ahead.
His son, who moved to Melbourne in April, told him that despite that city’s far-worse outbreak, the state government had now set out a clear chart of what could be done and when.
“You can’t pin your plan on anything here.”
For now, the MacDonalds, who also have a daughter living near them in Takapuna, are sadly resigned to putting Scotland on the backburner until next year. They hope higher vaccination rates will lead to changes in MIQ arrangements.
They also hope that next year may allow them a second trip to see their son. A talented bagpiper who has represented New Zealand, he is aiming to travel to an international competition in Edinburgh next August. “It skipped a generation,” says MacDonald.
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