New Zealand's border management system is becoming a farce.
When a dying man has to appeal through the media to come home and be with his family, while the Wiggles get into the country for a concert tour, we know something is seriously wrong.
The queuing system the Government set up for managed isolation and quarantine is unfit for purpose, and as a result inconsistent and tone-deaf decisions are being made.
A quick check of the MIQ online booking system will tell you there are now no slots available at all until the end of May, and bookings for June, July and subsequent months are yet to open. No matter what the date, the computer says "No".
Nobody, apart from diplomats and a few other special types, can come into the country without an MIQ voucher. So people are stuck, and getting desperate.
Companies that urgently need to get critical workers here to help operate their businesses have been reduced to paying people to hit refresh buttons on the MIQ webpage, in the hope they will strike it lucky and pick up a slot that becomes vacant. Stories abound of people creating software programs to do the same thing.
People are going to the media. This Government is nothing if not reactive to what is appearing on the front page, and that's becoming an increasingly common, if last-ditch, effort for some. You will recall that is how the terminally ill Trevor Ponting eventually got his voucher. What is less well known is that it is how the Wiggles got their vouchers as well — after an MP took up their case in social media and via a letter to the Minister.
There are a few MIQ slots held back for emergencies. If the Government likes you or your story, things might happen. Movie companies appear to have been particularly successful with that track. This is no way to run a border, Covid or no Covid.
Depending on the grace and favour of ministers and officials to get across a border is also no way to run a country.
By all accounts the situation has been made worse by the removal of Auckland's Pullman Hotel from the managed isolation inventory after the problems of mixing travellers at different points in their isolation. That has been proffered as an excuse, but it is actually a further indictment of the border management system.
All this wouldn't be so bad if the end was in sight, and we just had to hang on another month or two until the much-heralded vaccine rollout and a return to some sort of normal. However, it is increasingly clear that won't be the case.
Vaccines for this country seem to be on a very slow track despite previous assurances, and there seems to be no plan for after they get here.
There has been no public discussion of the level of vaccination required before borders will open again, let alone any thinking on what level of risk the country will tolerate in regards to non-vaccinated people.
Last week the Prime Minister told us we are likely to have border controls all year, and I suspect possibly beyond that.
We can't run our border system like a corner store for the rest of the year. It needs an overhaul, and that needs to start with who needs to go into managed isolation.
This column has made the point before, but 40 per cent of the people taking up isolation places arrive from Australia. Open a two-way transtasman bubble, as was originally due around July last year, and there is suddenly a lot more capacity for others to use the system. And it can be done without compromising safety.
As Australia has demonstrated with us, you can close a bubble temporarily if the risk in the other country or state rises, and open it again when that risk passes. Our Government should observe and learn.
The irony of our Prime Minister expressing disappointment when Australia took that step, when she has yet to countenance quarantine-free travel in this direction, would not have been lost on anyone.
Second, we need to increase rather than decrease our MIQ capacity.
This can be done in a number of ways. Hiring more MIQ nurses and doctors and opening more facilities is one option.
Allowing people from low-risk countries to isolate at home with the help of large fines for breaches is another.
Running a traffic light system to determine levels of risk and length of isolation is a third. Screening people with antibody tests is yet another.
Any number of clever experts, as recently as this week, have come up with proposals and suggestions to help the Government safely improve the capacity of the border system but they have so far fallen on deaf ears.
We can also better manage the places we have. Anecdotes abound of people making multiple MIQ bookings for one border crossing to allow for different travel scenarios. That needs sorting.
It would make sense to have different queues for different types of traveller, and link them to the wider border exemption system (so you don't get one piece of paper without the other).
Labour promised at the last election to put aside 10 per cent of MIQ places for critical workers. No progress there, either.
There has in fact been precious little evolution and innovation at the border since this system was first put in place, beyond putting band-aids on the leaky bits.
The Government is simply too complacent and unwilling to grasp the nettle, and this week's unemployment stats won't help. Inflated by historic levels of fiscal and monetary stimulus, we sail along inside our increasingly impregnable walled garden, while the rest of the world races to vaccinate and get ready to return to normal.
Our border situation is a pressure-cooker. Unless there is a change of attitude, it is only going to get worse.
- Steven Joyce is a former National Party MP and former Minister of Finance.