Charge of $3,100 will have to be paid if a returnee leaves again within six months, instead of the previous three months
An Air New Zealand flight arrives in Wellington Photograph: Dave Lintott/REX/Shutterstock
The Guardian-Tess McClure in Auckland
New Zealanders overseas have reacted with despair to news that the government has doubled the time returning citizens are required to stay to avoid paying a $3,100 quarantine fee.
The changes, announced on Wednesday, mean people coming home from overseas will need to stay six months, rather than the previous three, to be exempt from the fee – a move the government has said will help make the managed isolation system “more financially sustainable”.
But the change adds another barrier for those hoping to visit family in New Zealand or find respite from pandemic conditions overseas. Owen Williams, a New Zealander living in Canada and working in technology, said the change made a visit home financially unviable – flights alone cost $3,000 as well as $270 for a pre-departure test, and general moving costs.
“Switching it to six months is just undoable with the extra cost of MIQ [managed isolate and quarantine] – it puts it out of reach to go home before this thing is over, which seems to be the point of it all,” he said. “The message is loud and clear: even if you’re a citizen, unless you’re wealthy, don’t come back.”
Wilson said he did not object to a fee for those visiting the country briefly, or coming and going on vacation. But the new measures could make a trip unaffordable for many New Zealanders hoping to work from home temporarily, maintain overseas visas, or visit family members. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it believed the new charges would be paid by around 3 per cent of returnees.
New Zealand requires anyone entering the country to spend two weeks in an MIQ facility. The system is already difficult to access – at present it requires an online booking, with availability showing for the next four months. Often all spaces are booked out, and new spots can disappear within minutes.
Facebook groups with more than 20,000 members have sprung up to help people make the journey back and negotiate MIQ bookings. Some report sitting at their computers for hours each day, waiting and hoping for a viable date.
On Wednesday, social media users reacted to the new charges with anger and sadness. “Well, that’s plans for my parents to meet their first grandchild out the window for the foreseeable future,” one user tweeted. Another wrote: “Now in order to see my family (who I already haven’t seen in 2+ years) I have to basically quit my job and risk losing my Canadian visa.”
Many New Zealanders stranded overseas have now lived through months of lockdown, high risk of infection, economic strife, and death tolls reaching the hundreds of thousands. In countries like the US, rates of depression and anxiety have risen about 11%. For some expatriates, seeing the window of possibility to return home closing further adds to the psychological and mental health burden.
It’s “like we’re being punished for not moving back immediately, or needing to see our families for a breather after 14 months of endless harrowing crap”, Williams said. “Very weird, lonely feeling – [I] wish there was a bit more empathy.”
Last year the managed isolation and quarantine system was costing New Zealand around $2.4m a day.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Managed Isolation and Quarantine told The Guardian the change would result in around an extra $6m in revenue a year, before exemptions and waivers. “While not a large amount, it further supports a quality MIQ system by enabling the government to recover some of the costs of MIQ and to make the system more sustainable,” they said.
Fees were initially introduced because it “wasn’t sustainable for the Government and taxpayers to continue to fund all the cost”. The ministry can grant a full or partial waiver of fees in cases of financial hardship or exceptional circumstances.