Saturday, 27 Nov 2021

Matthew Hooton: Shameful MIQ lottery nears its end


Covid Minister Chris Hipkins promised late yesterday to announce changes before the end of this month to allow returning New Zealanders to self-isolate at home.

It now seems certain it will mean the end, before Christmas, of the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) lottery system that has so stained Jacinda Ardern’s, and New Zealand’s,honour.

As New Zealand citizens, we have learned valuable lessons through this pandemic, including that the Wellington bureaucracy will lock us up not just because we have been sentenced by a court or on public health grounds, but just because they can.

It took huge public, political, legal and media pressure to force yesterday’s u-turn. At a political level, Act’s David Seymour led the charge, backed by National’s Chris Bishop, once he moved on from his party’s ludicrous proposal to spend half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money building permanent MIQ facilities.

The latest case to reach the media is Shelley Grierson, a 30-something New Zealander currently living in the UK, who tried to get home to be with her dying sister, Rebecca, who has days or weeks to live.

Of course, we shouldn’t single out our local bureaucrats as especial monsters. Every first-year psychology student knows from the Stanford prison experiment what happens if you give anyone unchecked power. And unlike soldiers and police officers who usually work in the open, those making operational decisions about MIQ are faceless bureaucrats, hidden from view in the bowels of MBIE and the Ministry of Health. It’s not surprising that they devolved into bureaucrats with iron hearts.

The story that forced the u-turn was broken by the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan on Wednesday night. It concerned Shelley Grierson, a 30-something New Zealander currently living in the UK, who tried to get home to be with her dying sister Rebecca, who has days or weeks to live.

As Shelley told Coughlan, this isn’t an 80-year-old grandparent, or even her parents, whose passing is part of life. It is her older sister, to whom she is close. Like my friend and her husband of 56 years that I wrote about in August, who were prevented last year from being togetheras he died, neither Shelley nor Rebecca has Covid.

But unlike my friend and her husband, this latest and hopefully last monstrosity played out despite vaccines now being available. Shelley is not just double-vaccinated but has consistently tested negative for Covid. Yet Wellington bureaucrats turned down four applications for her to leave MIQ early, soshe could be sure of being with her sister as she dies.

These rejections were despite work by no less than professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson and their epidemiology colleagues from the University of Otago’s medical school advising that New Zealand now represents greater Covid risk to people like Shelley than they do to New Zealand. That is, there was no public health justification for Shelley continuing to be detained by the state against her will.

The way the Ardern Government treated Shelley is the polar opposite of kindness. It has been maximally cruel and it is impossible to imagine a court thinking it is consistent with her citizenship rights under the Bill of Rights Act. After all, under our legal system inherited from England, it has been unlawful since the 12th century for the state to detain someone without good reason.

Late yesterday afternoon, Shelley’s lawyers were still in negotiations with MBIE to secure her release. By the time you read this, the ministrywill surely have backed down.
That’s because the courts will almost certainly set her free if the matter goes to judicial review.

Parliament and the Government have provided for an MIQ exemption system. If the bureaucrats wouldn’t apply it in Shelley’s case, what possible case would they ever apply it to?

Yet Shelley is just one of the few whose stories have reached the public. And Shelley, after representations from her sister’s doctors and the Waikato District Health Board, was at least allowed to get as far as an MIQ facility in New Zealand.

That has been a relative luxury denied tens of thousands of New Zealanders facing similar life crises or who just want to come home and see their family and friends.

Even those who built up immunity from Covid after getting sick last year, who have now had both Pfizer shots not more than six months nor less than two weeks ago, and who test negative every day, have not been allowed to avoid Ardern’s disgusting MIQ lottery to return home. Some are stuck abroad with no remaining money, are living illegally in countries after their visas have expired, or both. They have been abandoned by Ardern, New Zealand and the so-called Team of Five Million.

As of yesterday, Wellington bureaucrats were allowing 2238 people in Auckland who are positive with Covid to self-isolate instead of being confined to MIQ, plus another 2772 who may have Covid. There are another 81 people with Covid self-isolating in the Waikato, plus a further 209 possible cases. These numbers rise rapidly every day.

Nevertheless, Shelley and tens of thousands of double-vaccinated, Covid-free New Zealand citizens like her have been either confined to MIQ or prevented from exercising their citizenship rights to even get that far. This has been a disgrace not just to Ardern’s regime but to all of us.

Businessman Murray Bolton, with John Billington, QC, was the first to kick a big legal hole in the MIQ monstrosity. Bolton’s proposal to self-isolate after returning home from a business meeting was turned down by MBIE, but the businessman sued and the courts forced MBIE to reconsider. After reading the judgment and re-considering the law, the bureaucrats backed down.

Since then, the Government has been desperate to keep similar cases out of the law courts and the court of public opinion, knowing it would be smashed in both.

After the Bolton decision, it was only a matter of time before the political and legal pressure forced a collapse of the whole cruel, medically unjustified and probably illegal system.

It is understandable people in Shelley’s position have preferred to do private, low-profile deals with MBIE to escape confinement, like the one being negotiated yesterday afternoon.

But hopefully someone still decides to take the legal road to secure a clear Supreme Court precedent that neither the current nor any future New Zealand Government can lock up citizens without good reason — and thereby prevent a government dealing with the next pandemic from acting in the cruel and unjustified way that has so undermined Ardern’s claims to govern based on principles of kindness.

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