Kiwis abroad who are desperate to get home found themselves waiting in a queue of around 25,000 others in the new managed isolation (MIQ) booking system, while authorities say those who missed out on a spot will have to wait until next week.
The new "virtual lobby" system launched at 8am for people to book for around 3000 new room releases in MIQ across September, October, November and December.
But screenshots taken from New Zealanders living overseas show the number of people waiting in the randomised queue topped 25,000 at just 9.02am, including foreign medical professionals waiting to re-locate.
Regan Collins stayed up late in London to get in the online queue. He was positioned at 12,500 in the queue after logging into the system at 8.01am.
"It does feel like some sort of cruel game to enter a lottery for a flight back home, surely there should be some form of priority to those with special circumstances such as critically ill loved ones," Collins told the Herald.
"I have had two vaccines which in the UK lessens my level of quarantine time when travelling back into the UK. New Zealand must look at some alternatives to a 14-day hotel quarantine otherwise what is the long-term strategy?"
Wellington telco engineer Jonathan Brewer, who has been stuck in Singapore for months trying to book an MIQ room, told the Herald: "This system is designed for selling concert tickets, not for helping people get home. I don't think anyone involved in this project is going to be putting it on their CV. I know I wouldn't."
Marlene Stephenson is trying to get back to New Zealand with her son to see her terminally ill father. She said the overwhelming queue shows the huge issue of undersupply of MIQ rooms.
Her position of 22,168 in the line made her feel "desperately disappointed" and the thought of not returning "quite sobering".
"I've come to an anxious resignation realising I've done as much as I can do ... it's almost like an acceptance, but it's a very frustrating, anxious acceptance and you just keep hoping you'll be lucky.
"There is no priority. People who got through might have wanted to come home to see family but there's nothing about if your relatives are ill, or if your visa has run out, or if you haven't got a job, there's nothing like that. It's massively frustrating for us."
Meanwhile, parents who tried to book a spot for their son have posted a video of the process to YouTube, revealing they had logged into two computers at one time at 8am, and were still positioned behind thousands of people in the line.
Among those who did manage to secure an MIQ spot today were four medical professionals recruited by Accent Health Recruitment - an anaesthetic technician going to Wellington, a midwife going to Timaru, a physiotherapist moving to Auckland and a mental health nurse re-locating to Dunedin.
Managing director Prudence Thomsen said one of them has to leave England in 24 hours.
But Thomsen said 62 other medical professionals looking to relocate to New Zealand waited in the virtual line but missed out on an MIQ spot.
"I had 62 online waiting, emailing me saying 'I'm in the lobby waiting but there's 12,000 or 9,000 or 6,000 people in front of me'... so everyone was at varying stages.
"It was like sitting waiting for tickets for a concert, it was pretty stressful but we've got through and four is good and the rest will try again in four weeks.
"I've got a nurse going to Timaru, South Canterbury and they really need a lot of support at the moment ... she didn't get an allocation and she's going to try for an emergency allocation."
Thomsen said emergency allocations can sometimes be a challenge because medical professionals can only apply 14 days prior to arriving in New Zealand, so they often don't get allocated that until two or three days before they depart.
The lobby was designed to "make booking more transparent and will create a more level playing field for people trying to access the booking site" because there is no limit on how many people can wait in the lobby.
But it seems authorities under-estimated demand for MIQ spots, with a note to users waiting in the virtual line saying "they may not secure a room this time" because "hundreds" of people may be ahead of them.
Stephenson said the new system is a big improvement, but the real issue is a shortage of MIQ beds.
"It's good that there's an announcement so you know when it's going to be released, and they're doing it in bulk, and therefore you're not going to have to sit there for days, weeks, completely uncertain.
"Kudos for actually making a change ... but the reality is that there's just a massive amount of under supply."
Further room releases will be announced at least 24 to 48 hours in advance so people will know when to come back, the MIQ website states.
Head of MIQ Megan Main is reminding New Zealanders that the new system is not a "first in, first served" approach.
"It doesn't matter when people arrived in the lobby in that one-hour period between 8 and 9am - everyone has an equal chance of getting through to try to secure a room."
Main said the new feature will not fix the issue of supply and demand, and once all rooms have been taken the lobby will be closed.
"Anyone in the queue will be informed that they have unfortunately missed out this time. But there will be more rooms coming, there's still several thousand rooms to be released through to the end of the year.
"I know that the recent pause on vouchers has meant demand has built up. So we will be staggering releases and there will be more available very soon – the next will be next week."