Amy outside a managed isolation hotel in Auckland

Yesterday was not a good day for those who might be optimistic that the Government will end the Alert Level Four shortly, and all will be back to life as we knew it before the Delta outbreak occurred.

In a series of appearances, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins indicated the Government was now starting to make some longer-term plans.

Most notably, he told a Select Committee he was looking at possibly purchasing or building managed isolation and Quarantine facilities alongside commissioning existing hotels.

He is also looking at reviewing the MIQ booking system to make it more like the immigration points system though he admitted that was fraught with long processing delays.

The immediate issue is MIQ capacity which will have been hit by the closure of the Trans-Tasman bubble and the likelihood that it may not re-open for some time.

“We are looking at whether we can get some additional rooms, some additional facilities coming on stream to expand our overall capacity,” Hipkins told Parliament’s Health Committee yesterday.

“No matter how you do the booking process, when you’ve got a lot more people wanting to come in, then you’ve got space for there are going to be some people who miss out.

“And so that’s going to continue to be a challenge for us.

“We are very, very aware, though, that high demand, limited capacity is still the big issue.”

Hipkins said the Government was looking all the time at what the future of MIQ might be.

“There are a variety of options on the table; continuing to use hotels in the current arrangements that we have,” he said.

“A sort of a serviced lease or serviced contract type arrangement with the hotels is likely to still be part of the system over the longer term, depending on how long we’re doing this for.

“But there are three other aspects we continue to explore; purpose-built facilities that are built and operated by Government, purpose-built facilities that are built and operated by someone else or potentially purchased facilities and then a greater degree of conversion work is done on them.

“So all of those continue to be on the table.

“This is nothing quick.”

The facilities are likely to be in or near Auckland because, he said, of the difficulty arranging charter flights to transport new arrivals from Auckland to, say, Wellington.

But the unspoken point is that the Government is now looking for semi-permanent MIQ facilities.

At the same time as finding more rooms for arrivals into the country, Hipkins said work had begun on revamping the booking system.

The Government was already making some changes, and these would be announced today.

“We’re looking at a whole variety of different things,” he said.

“One is how we would make the Managed Isolation Allocation Systemfairer, more transparent and a bit more equitable,” he said.

“The other is whether there are alternatives.

“And that might include some sort of point system.

“One of the challenges with that is if you look at the immigration point system between deciding that you want to apply and actually getting your way through there, you could be waiting nine months, a year, two years to actually get your application processed.

“It’s an enormous undertaking to process someone through the system where you’re verifying the number of points that they have.

“So it’s a question, I guess, of getting the balance right.

“If we were going to move to a sort of a more of a merit-based based system, how would you, as much as possible with still a relatively light touch assessment process, verify the information that people are providing?”

But he confirmed that the Government was looking at a prioritisation system, whether it was by point s or some other way.

But, again, all the signs are that the Government is moving from a rapidly put in place ad hoc system to something more permanent.

Hipkins was everywhere yesterday. After the Select Committee, he stood in for the prime Minister (as he often does) at the daily Covid media briefing.

There he suggested there are changes coming to the definitions of the  Alert levels.

“The alert level framework still remains the overall guide that we worked to,” he said.

“Of course, from time to time, there is the odd tweak to the legal framework, and people will have seen that through our response so far.”

In what may be a hint of the way the Government is going to approach the decision on the future of the current Level Four Alert on Friday.

He said the Government was working through a situation where it had a differentiated Level Four –  Level three situation.

“We have had times when we’ve had some parts of the country in Level Three and some in Level Two, but we’ve never had Level Four, and Level Three split around the country.

“So we’re just working through what that means for supply chains and movement and so on and have extensive conversations going on to be ready for that in the event that that’s where we get to at some point in the next little while.”

The costs of staying at Level Four are high, and the Government will want to minimise those as much as they can.

Though some major construction projects around the country (The Auckland Central Rail Link, the Bluff wharf) have been given approval to carry on, most are closed.

But construction can operate at Level Three as long as one-metre distancing is maintained between workers.

Transport Minister Michael Wood told the Transport Committee yesterday that The level four restrictions were very significant and their impact on the transport sector and its ability to get on with infrastructure projects.

“Work has had to cease in respect of Transmission Gully,” he said.

“And it is likely that there will be an impact on that completion date as a result of that.

“I think most people would understand that it’s a little bit early to be specific about what that might actually mean because we don’t quite know how long the current restrictions will apply for.”

In many ways, that was the story of the day — that there is considerable uncertainty about the future of this lockdown, but at the same time, the Government has begun to dig in for a much longer period of living with the Covid border restrictions and possibly some lockdowns as well.

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