MBIE says it has suspended 119 MIQ booking accounts "over the last few days" for breaking a rule around hiring third-party booking services in a bid to secure a scarce room - at a cost of around $1000 a pop.
But tech leaders say the Government is focusing on the wrong target, and should instead fix its bot-friendly, human-hostile booking system. They suggest some easy fixes (keep reading).
Over the past month, complaints have escalated about what some want-to-be returnees to New Zealand call an "unusable" online system for booking a spot in managed isolation.
Many, like telecommunications engineer Jonathan Brewer and UN aid worker Tony Cameron are among the many who say whenever a free slot appears on the booking system, it's snapped up in seconds.
"I just can't type fast enough to beat the bots," said Brewer, who made a video of hundreds of attempts to secure a slot during a marathon stint hitting refresh on his browser.
Some have resorted to paying third-party services to book a slot on their behalf - the going rate is $1000 and some charge up to $2000 - or paying $2 per alert for a heads-up when a slot is free so they can scramble to their keyboard. Tools for automated or "bot" logons have featured on Github, a popular service for software developers.
MBIE, which administers the MIQ booking system, maintains that people like Brewer and Cameron can't book a slot primarily because hundreds of other accounts are trying to access the same room at the same time. The agency is now trying to weed out those using third-party services and/or bots that can allow for multiple logins for the same account - in violation of its terms and provisions, which say a user-name and password must not be shared.
Joint Head of MIQ Megan Main told the Herald on July 19, that "available rooms disappear quickly because there is a much higher demand for MIQ allocation than supply. At any one time there are hundreds of users online competing to secure a date.
Demand for space in managed isolation facilities is often high, and there is finite capacity within the MIQ system, Main said.
Nevertheless, MBIE began a crackdown against those who had hired a third-party booking service. On July 31, the agency said it was investigating up to 120 accounts for possible violations of its terms of service.
The MIQ joint head added that people who had been suspended could appeal and apply for emergency hotel room allocation if they met a "high threshold".
Although few have been suspended, so far, in the crackdown, those affected might be taken by surprise.
MIQ booking fine print says users are prohibited from sharing their logon name and password, but an MBIE advisory sent to Brewer last month implied that hiring someone to book a slot on your behalf was merely frowned on.
It read, "MBIE does not recommend using any third parties selling their services to secure a voucher on your behalf as by giving these organisations your username and password they then have access to all of your personal details."
Regardless, Brewer decided to play within the rules. After no luck over hundreds of attempts, he made a complaint to the Ombudsman, calling the MIQ booking system "inaccessible", or simply unusable.
'Unfair, anxiety-inducing, time-consuming'
On August 3, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government is considering a number of tweaks, including giving people advance notice of when batches of MIQ vouchers will be released, but there's still no word on if that could come to pass, or when.
And although Main has said on several occasions that it is a demand issue, rather than a system issue, tech industry figures have been queuing up to offer system fixes.
Among them have been AskNicely cofounder Jon Ballinger, who posted: "The MIQ booking system is not fair. It is anxiety-inducing and requires an exorbitant amount of time to attempt a booking."
It should take hours, but instead people are spending days, even weeks booking, which takes a toll on their family life, work and mental health, said Ballinger - whose startup has offices in the US and NZ.
Simple fixes to level the playing field
The current system favours the tech-savvy, who know that multiple logons from the same account, or using software from a third party to speed the booking process, gives them the edge, Ballinger says.
To remove the inequality, he proposes a lottery at midday each day, covering those who have registered over the past week.
That would also save MBIE the expense of anti-automation technology, and its investigations into alleged rule-breakers, Ballinger added.
AI expert Sean Gourlie suggested a similar change, which he says would at least give the average punter a chance against the fast-fingered or bot-wranglers.
"The simplest change [MBIE] can make to the booking code is to keep the date open for 10 minutes and let anyone choose the date. Then randomly select from all those who have clicked on this date within the 10-minute window," he posted.
"It removes the speed advantage bots have and, Importantly, makes it accessible to people who can't afford to pay $950 to the black market. It's a simple code change that you can push out today if you want, MBIE."
Brewer - an ex-scientific applications developer for Pfizer global research and development arm, who founded a wireless ISP then sold it to NZX-listed TeamTalk (not Vital) - says he has the wherewithal to pay for an additional MIQ slot, and would be happy to do so if only the Government would offer that as an option.
'Breach of my rights'
Meanwhile, those battling the current MIQ booking system continue to range.
Brewer, who has been stranded in Singapore for months, reported no progress this week, in an all caps message to the Herald.
UN development programme project manager Cameron - who has been helping Malawi with its Covid response - is frustrated that he could visit NZ last year, but now the system is overwhelmed.
MBIE told him in a July 29 email, which he forwarded to the Herald: "We want to be able to bring everyone home who wants to return but we have to do that in a safe, managed way. For New Zealand, that number is around 4000 rooms a fortnight. But we know the level of unmet demand is much higher than this, particularly as we head towards the summer months."
Cameron had requested practical assistance.An MBIE resolutions analyst could only offer, "We do not give advance notice of voucher release dates on an individual basis. I recommend you continue to check the system regularly and frequently refresh the pages."
"MBIE essentially admit this is an issue of economics in managing available voucher spaces depending on demand," Cameron told the Herald.
"So when demand outstrips supply, those of us languishing overseas must remain overseas.
"To be clear, I am not referring to space available in the time I wish to return home, I mean there is no space whatsoever.
"To me, this begs the question: why in 2020 were there enough allocated spaces for me to return home on leave to see my family - and pay for the privilege- when in 2021 there is zero possibility to return? I suggest this demonstrates MIQ's economics takes precedence over our fundamental human right to be able to return home to our own country."
With the MIQ booking system in its current form, which he sees as unusable, "the New Zealand Government is effectively preventing me from entering my own country".
Main said the Government is looking at ways to make the system fairer.