The "virtual lobby" for re-entry to New Zealand sounded like a daft idea from the moment it was announced. Instead of having to constantly check the MIQ site – or, heaven forbid, paying someone to do this for you – a "lobby" would be open at a notified time and everyone who entered would be in a lottery for a room. What could be fairer than that?
It sounded like something Soviet socialism would have devised if it had survived to see online shopping. If Russians happened to see a butcher shop that had meat in the Soviet era, they would join a long queue. Chinese socialists got smarter, they allowed people to make money by producing more meat.
Predictably, the MIQ lobby was laughable when its door opened for the first time on Monday. Within minutes there were 25,000 expats online hoping to book 3000 rooms released for dates between now and Christmas. If you didn't laugh you'd cry for the Kiwis who can't come home.
My son is one of them. He's been the software development manager for a website in Melbourne serving an industry devastated by lockdowns there. He's decided to come home but I worry he won't bother if he has to negotiate the system devised by our MBIE.
For one thing, you need to co-ordinate an airline reservation with an MIQ application. After Monday's debacle an article appeared on the Herald site written by Brent Thomas, chair of the NZ Travel Agents Association, explaining the catch-22.
Travellers entering the lobby, he wrote, "need to know exactly what their flight options are, and if there's space available on the route, so they can ensure their MIQ booking lines up with when the airline will get them into the country. If one books out before the other, they'll need to forfeit the piece of the puzzle they have managed to book."
Travel agents, he pointed out, "are experts at exactly this – making complicated bookings. Every day travel agents use Global Distribution Systems (GDS) which, simply put, are computerised network systems that enable live inventory data (who has what available, when) across different suppliers to be consolidated and presented to agents, who then can make the best booking for the customer.
"These systems could easily be adapted for the MIQ process," he said. He also observed that hotels converted for MIQ are not being used to their full capacity. "There is a simple solution to streamline this process that would create greater efficiencies in capacity, support Kiwis trying to come home and relieve some pain points – contract the booking system to travel agents."
Well why not? And while we're about it, why not contract MIQ entirely to the hotel industry?
The basic problem is one of supply. Our Soviet ministry has about 6500 rooms and at least 22,000 expats waiting to book one.
Dean Humphries, national hotel director for Colliers, estimates hotels throughout the country have 18,500 rooms either empty or underused at present. "Many of these hotel owners would welcome MIQ business," he told the Herald this week.
So why not use the resources and expertise in the private sector? The Government will say the risk of a viral outbreak is too great. This is a government that doesn't trust the private
sector. That was evident in many areas of activity long before the pandemic. It's been evident in the vaccination programme when even private medical practices had to press for inclusion.
If Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson had worked in the private sector they would know a great deal of trust can be placed in commercial self-interest. It is not in the interests of a hotel to be identified as the source of an outbreak, nor to be closed by a single case.
Quite likely, a hotel would place more stringent demands on its staff, including mandatory vaccination, than has been imposed on state servants. It's staggering to hear this week that only 75 per cent of front-line health workers have been vaccinated.
In another open letter to the Prime Minister this week, high-tech televisual entrepreneur Sir Ian Taylor told her how his company and others have been sending teams to Covid infested countries for 18 months without suffering a single case. They ensure they are all vaccinated and continually tested, as are their clients.
The main problem they face, he said, is that they cannot be sure of when they can get their people back to their New Zealand desks through an MIQ system "that simply doesn't work".
Give it to the travel and hotel industries. They have the capacity and the safety incentives, they need the business and they know how to do it.