By Jordan Bond RNZ
Working for free, one man is plugging away at his computer for 16 hours a day just to help people secure an MIQ hotel room.
He's offering his tech skills at no cost because he said the MIQ room booking system is failing people desperate to return home. But MIQ said there is finite space, and inevitably some people will miss out.
The MIQ system has become a computer race, with those who understand technology now more likely to get a room.
RNZ has heard from many people who say successfully booking one of the rooms is like winning the lottery, with open slots snapped up in seconds.
One man has taken it upon himself to help other people. Some have been fruitlessly searching for weeks. He initially saw a "heartbreaking" story online and offered to help, securing an MIQ room for a couple who wanted to see their daughter who's been admitted to hospital.
"And then I think word got around that I was helping out and it kind of blew up from there. Yesterday I woke up to about 40 messages from people [wanting help]. And I'm happy to do it, but... I shouldn't have to," said the man, who doesn't want his name used.
He said the booking system needs to change. "There are so many flaws with the system and how it's been done," he said.
He's running what's called a "script" which partially automates the process. That speed makes it more likely that a booking will be secured.
One website is trying to capitalise on people's desperation by charging $2415 per person to book a room. Another offers the service for $149. He has 21 five-star reviews, with one person recommending his service for anyone looking for an MIQ booking "at this difficult time".
"Thanks so much for reducing the stress of trying to book MIQ NZ," another said.
The man RNZ spoke to offers the service for free, and has now helped 20 people secure rooms in the past few days. He said some people have "insisted" on paying because they were so grateful.
"People who are trying to go home to be with their father who has cancer, their mother with dementia," he said.
"What am I going to do? I can't not help these people. It should be easier, it should be less stressful, it should be causing people less anxiety."
Sam Drew, a scientist working at the cutting edge of cancer therapies, is stuck in California and said he's basically given up trying to get a spot, and has accepted he probably won't get home this year.
"It's strange how I feel like I've just been isolated from the country I was born in. It's like statehood has been taken away. There's basically no path, without getting an exemption, to getting home."
He said sportspeople on the other hand seem to be able to come in and out of the country when they want without issue.
"I think the system just needs to be improved. There could be a waitlist. At the moment there's a free-for-all, but it's not done in an ethical way. People that aren't as technologically savvy are at a disadvantage," Drew said.
One woman's daughter, who's fully vaccinated, can't get home from London.
She cannot get an MIQ room after being away for two and a half years. Her daughter's tried and failed to get a room for several months now.
Her son's friend has had better luck - for a holiday.
"They've obtained a slot to come back in November and they're going away to do a three-month holiday overseas," she said.
MBIE said people are coming in and out of the country for business, and it has no way to tell why people are booking MIQ rooms.
The man who's helping people secure spots doesn't want to be named, in part because he's flooded with requests and is already working 16 hours a day.
But he also doesn't want to be attacked for his work.
"I love New Zealanders, and I love the country, but there is sometimes a real lack of compassion and understanding from those who are at home to those who are overseas.
"Saying 'oh, don't you come home and bring it' or 'you've had two years to come home'. They don't understand: people's lives are [overseas]. They're working and they have families. For a country that's usually very compassionate and, dare I say, kind, [New Zealand's] not very kind at the moment."
MBIE said, during April and May, MIQ had a lot of free spaces.
"We had a sustained period of lower demand where spaces were available for many weeks. During a pandemic, and where demand is high, people may not be able to travel at the exact time that suits them."
A spokesperson said anyone who needs to travel urgently can apply for an emergency allocation for an MIQ room.
"Demand for space in managed isolation facilities is always high, and there is finite capacity within the MIQ system. This means that although New Zealanders can still come home, they may not be able to travel on the dates they would prefer.
"As with all aspects of our Covid-19 response, we are continuing to review our policies and procedures to ensure they remain fit for purpose, and keep our wider community safe.
"That includes exploring options including waitlisting and working on ways to release as many spaces as practicable at appropriately spaced out intervals. It should be noted that even with a form of waiting list, there would still be insufficient spaces to fulfil the demand to come to New Zealand."