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From Both Sides Now

From Both Sides Now

Career public servant Kara Isaac experienced New Zealand’s managed isolation both as a “guest” and on the leadership team of the organisation running the frontline defence against the spread of Covid-19. Now MIQ is over, she shares some of what went on in the back rooms.

By Yvonne van Dongen

When Kara Isaac accepted the position of general manager, managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) policy, at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), her colleagues and friends thought she was either crazy or brave. Very possibly both.

MIQ’s failings were aired in the media so often in late 2020 that the system had largely become a byword for incompetence. Stories appeared almost daily of seemingly baffling and cold-hearted decisions that were separating family from dying loved ones and keeping parents from their children, as returnees slipped though fences in bids for freedom.

When Isaac was offered the job, she was asked repeatedly by concerned acquaintances if she was absolutely sure she wanted it. Yes, she replied, she did. And she knew exactly why. Having experienced MIQ twice under devastating personal circumstances, she understood the pressures and vulnerabilities of those enduring managed isolation. In her new role, Isaac was determined to try and improve the lot of some of those finding themselves in similar circumstances. With her time at MIQ now ended, she looks back, believing her team did achieve that — even if some of the people they helped will never know what they did.

A long-time public servant, Isaac has worked at management level within the ministries of Economic Development and Education. In early 2019, she was working in Wellington as a senior policy manager, living with her husband Josh and their three young children. But that March, Isaac’s world was tipped upside down when her sister, to whom she was very close, was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer. Melody, known as Mel, was only 30. She lived in regional Queensland.

The family rallied. Isaac, her brother, and sister-in-law took turns to travel to Queensland to support Mel and her family. At the same time, Isaac’s parents temporarily relocated to Queensland from Moldova, where they had been living and working in development. For a time, things looked hopeful, but in June 2020 came the devastating news. Mel’s health had deteriorated, scans revealing the reprieve was over.

Again, her family were desperate to be with her, except this time the world had changed. Three months after the arrival of Covid-19 sent the world into lockdowns, national borders were firmly closed. Back in Moldova, Isaac’s parents were trapped: the country had been in strict lockdown since February. In New Zealand, borders closed to non-residents on 19 March, and a fortnight’s compulsory managed isolation and quarantine for returning residents and citizens was introduced from 9 April.

“I get enraged when people say New Zealanders had plenty of time to get back home in March,” Isaac says, the memory still strong two-and-a-half years later. “My parents were in lockdown already and couldn’t get out. People forget that air routes were decimated and planes weren’t flying. Many people tried desperately to get home and couldn’t for months.”

After receiving compassionate approval to enter Australia, Isaac flew to Brisbane, not knowing when she would or could return to her Wellington family. Her parents had been able to leave Europe via a temporary relaxation of restrictions at the border with Romania, and arrived into Australia a few days ahead of Isaac. Her first managed isolation experience was in the Four Points Brisbane hotel, surrounded by buildings blocking natural light. Australia’s MIQ rules were severe. Any breaches would incur a large fine, and only one escorted walk a day in an underground garage was permitted.

She coped by working remotely while counting down the days to seeing her sister and parents. Mel died 12 days after Isaac got out of MIQ. It was six short weeks after she had been given less than six months to live.

The morning after  the funeral Isaac was on a flight home, having made the last of the three flights she’d booked in case of cancellation. This time her MIQ host was the New Zealand government and she was placed in the Sudima Rotorua. It was here that she fell apart, even though the rules and regulations were far less stringent than those in Australia.

“I was exhausted and I just cried the whole way to Rotorua. The thing that broke me was the futility of it all. There were still no community cases on either side, my sister had just died and I was about to be confined in a room for 14 days. No one could give me a hug or touch me, for what felt like no good reason.”

After keeping herself together for so long, Kara began to unravel. Again her room had little natural light and she could hear what was happening in the rooms next door.

“It’s the most broken I’ve ever been. On the first morning I just sobbed to the nurse and NZDF security guard. They were great. They got me a different room that had light and a view with a tree in blossom. The difference that made was huge. I knew what it was like to do MIQ with no sunlight, but that time I did what I had to do to get to my sister. This time I had lost her. MIQ in that circumstance was not a safe place to fall apart.”

Today, Isaac is composed and talking at her Wellington home. Framed photos of Mel are on the walls.

After her 14 days in Rotorua were up, Isaac returned to Wellington and her role at the Ministry of Education. But something deep and significant had shifted within her. “You come back from something like I’d gone through and it changes the landscape of your whole life. I was flattened by grief and on the second day after I was back at work someone made a joke about how I had been on holiday to Australia while everyone else was stuck in New Zealand. I just thought I’m not doing this job anymore.”

Not long after, the role of MIQ policy general manager was advertised. Isaac’s interest was piqued, even though the reports about MIQ were discouraging. “Every other day it was in the news — someone escaping, someone falling through the cracks, no rooms available, that sort of thing.”

But also, she realised that after almost two decades working in government, she had the skills acquired from working in both operational and policy areas. And she also had the very recent experience of MIQ. “When New Zealand was facing something this big, the complexity and change to the way we lived, you want good people on the ground. I knew that if I got the job I would give it my best shot and bring a different perspective. It felt like working there could be something that mattered and was bigger than me and my family and our grief.”

At that time, December 2020, 32 hotels in Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, and Christchurch had been designated as isolation facilities, and over 80,000 returning New Zealanders and essential workers had flowed through them. The armed services had been drafted in to manage the facilities, with overall responsibility shared jointly between the New Zealand Defence Force, MBIE and the Ministry of Health. But by December, demand far outstripped supply, and there was growing anger from those stuck offshore who couldn’t get home, or if they could, faced what seemed ludicrous, hard-hearted rules once they got here.

As part of preparing for the job interview, Isaac read dozens of desperate messages on social media from people trying to get back to New Zealand or trying to get family members home.

“That set my approach to the job,” she says. “I thought I’m never going to be able to change big things for lots of people but if I’m lucky I can change small things for a few people. It’s the starfish story — you can’t save every beached starfish, but your actions matter to the one starfish you throw back into the sea.”

Mel with her siblings.
Kara, on right, with her siblings Mel and Christian six months before Mel’s diagnosis.

She started her new role in February 2021, the week after the discordant notes of The Wiggles brouhaha — the latest MIQ story to dominate the front pages. The Australian childrens’ entertainers were given vouchers to access MIQ despite not exactly being essential workers. Isaac had watched with dismay as the prime minister directed that “a practical solution be found”, forcing MIQ to prioritise spaces for the band and their production crew after the promoter sold thousands of tickets for their national tour without having rooms for them in MIQ.

Once she was in the job, things moved fast. “I signed out more advice [public service speak for advising the relevant minister] in my first fortnight in MIQ than I had in a year in my previous job.” MIQ was high profile, high scrutiny, high pace and it wasn’t for everyone. While Isaac found her colleagues some of the best public servants she’d worked with, there was churn and exhaustion in the ranks after nine months of working on the pandemic.

“People expected MIQ to turn on a dime. The constant pivot was enormously difficult. I had 30 people in my [policy] team, there were a few hundred in head office, and over 4000 frontline staff, each of whom knew any mistake they made could allow Covid into the community. MIQ had to react like a ninja when it was more like an oil tanker.”

Another challenge was the media coverage. It seemed that journalists were looking for flaws when what Isaac saw was people doing their best at what had never been done before, and under extraordinary pressure. “Things were much more complex than anyone realised.” Detailed, nuanced explanations by MBIE comms staff to media often went unheard.

Isaac appreciates that, as the pandemic ground on, some things made little sense to the public. One example is when the Delta variant was circulating in the community, yet Covid-free people in MIQ were not allowed to shorten their stays even in exceptional circumstances.

When MIQ moved from the Ministry of Health to MBIE in mid-2020, responsibilities were divided between the two bodies. Health kept the framework decisions for things like testing and exemptions for early or temporary release, while MBIE was responsible for the implementation and operations.

MIQ had to assess applicants via the risk-assessment tool designed by Health, which asked questions such as where the person had travelled from, how many transit stops they had made, whether someone else on the plane tested positive on arrival at MIQ and where the person they wanted to visit was. Points were accumulated depending on the answers. It meant, says Isaac, that the exemptions system was not as agile or flexible as it should have been in situations such as a community outbreak.

“If I was working until midnight, some of our health colleagues were probably working all night. But because they weren’t faced every day with the reality of the decisions the tool produced, there were times where revising it wasn’t the priority for them that it was for us.”

Her view is that was there were a number of weeks in late 2021 when the tool was not proportionate to local context. “If someone scored above a certain number of points we had no discretion. So you had situations like someone in MIQ with a dying parent in hospice a few kilometres down the road. Yet their application to visit them had to be declined because someone else on the flight had tested positive for Covid.”

Isaac often sat in on decision meetings, listening to accounts of heart-breaking situations, where officials had no room to move because of the score the risk-assessment tool had produced. “People would ask, how can you keep me in here when there are 2000 community cases in Auckland? Really there was no good answer for that.”

The pressure was unrelenting, with 15-hour days and working through weekends being the norm. “Your brain never switched off, so it meant most nights you were waking multiple times, writing emails, texts, messages that needed to be followed up the next day. There were so many balls in the air. MIQ was my life, I lived and breathed it for the first 15 months. And we were just one cog in the wheel. If we were sending advice across to the minister at 1am, there was someone in his office also working and picking it up.

“We were ‘it’ at the border, and we were constantly aware of that. Once someone was in the country, we were the last line of defence. It was tough for those of us in the back office but the pressure was even more intense for the people on the front line. They were the true heroes in all of this.”

Daily reports of how awful MIQ was didn’t help. Nor did the inability to speak up when they knew a story in the media was inaccurate because responding would have breached people’s privacy. “After a while you just have to find a way to show up and do your job. It wasn’t easy given the hours, the intensity and reading most days about what a crap job you were doing. You had to know why you were there and stay focused on what really mattered and accept that a whole lot of stuff that was being said just wasn’t true.”

The truth was that Isaac’s teams’ own lives were little different from anyone else’s. Many had family members overseas they longed to see, while others had whānau trying to get home. Isaac was worried team members would develop a bunker mentality when they needed to stay open to relooking at anything, no matter where a problem was raised — on social media or elsewhere. “Where our team made the biggest tangible difference was in emergency allocations. The criteria was set by the minister [Chris Hipkins] but at our advice.”

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One of the examples Isaac recalls is the man who went overseas for medical treatment he couldn’t get in New Zealand and when seeking to return didn’t fit any of the criteria for an emergency MIQ allocation. As a result, a new category was developed so that anyone who needed critical treatment unavailable here was eligible for an emergency space on their return. In another case, a young woman’s family rushed to be with her when she was in an ICU overseas after almost drowning. She recovered, but there were no criteria allowing the parents to return home. Had she died, the system would have allowed them to access MIQ space to return. Isaac’s team provided advice to the minister and a new category was added meaning families who had someone suffer a catastrophic medical event could be prioritised.

In this way the team was able to fine-tune the system at least half a dozen times. Isaac credits Hipkins, then the minister for the Covid-19 response, for approving every expansion of emergency allocations the officials recommended. Again, the starfish effect at work.

“If I look back on the work we did, that is one of the areas where I am proudest of the team. We never stood back and said the criteria are what they are and we’re not changing them.”

The only other country to embrace the elimination strategy as thoroughly as New Zealand was Australia, largely because most other nations had land borders. Singapore also followed an elimination strategy until July 2021, but it handed the operational side of managed isolation to the private sector.

“MIQ had to react like a ninja when it was more like an oil tanker.”

From April to June 2021, MIQ had rooms to spare. “We were pretty much begging people to come home if they wanted to. Thousands of rooms went empty over that time.”

Many MIQ hotels only had 30 per cent occupancy when they could have been running at 80$90 per cent. Bored staff left. Those running MIQ knew the window of opportunity would likely be short-lived: later that year seasonal workers, deep-sea fishers, and Olympians would be prioritised for rooms, alongside growing demand from people wanting to return to New Zealand for summer. In addition, the trans-Tasman bubble with Australia was looking increasingly tenuous.

By June, demand for MIQ spaces had picked up. The MIQ website became susceptible to bots and when MBIE released rooms, the site struggled under the sheer demand.

Then, from late June, the trans-Tasman bubble deflated, starting with New South Wales, as its Delta outbreak took off. Suddenly rooms were needed to accommodate more than 2000 returning New Zealanders on managed flights from Sydney. This was followed by the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, prompting the deployment of a New Zealand Defence Force team to help evacuate New Zealanders and other foreign nationals. And then came the Delta variant making its way into the community, plunging New Zealand back into lockdown.

As a result, from August until 20 September, when the virtual queue and lobby system for rooms was launched, the government decided not to release vouchers, due to all of the other demands for space in MIQ. The only way home was for applicants meeting emergency criteria. By the time the new voucher system started it was asked to cope with weeks of pent-up demand. Almost 31,000 people queued online for the randomly-assigned 3200 rooms.

Looking back, Isaac nominates last September as the worst of times. It was then, she says, that “everything was on fire”. Hotels had to be flipped from managed isolation for border arrivals to quarantine facilities for community cases. Returnees from Afghanistan and the burst Australian bubble added to demand, and desperation mounted among New Zealanders overseas who had no pathway home. The thirst for information from people up the chain was unquenchable, she says. The pressure took its toll.

In one meeting she broke down and sobbed offscreen during a Zoom call with government ministers and other senior officials. Afterwards, MIQ joint head Brigadier Rose King told her this was the most stressful job she’d ever had too. “And she’s served in war zones, so that made me feel better.”

The weight of responsibility and often the impossibility of what officials were being asked to do wore people down. “It honestly felt like the whole system was about to topple over. Part of my breakdown then was knowing how bad the situation was on the front line and feeling like I was failing to get across to ministers the reality of what was happening. It was so intense that our briefings were time-stamped, because you knew that within hours the situation might have changed.

“On the worst days when I didn’t have time to eat, I just ate Fix & Fogg Everything Butter out of the jar with a spoon. That got me through.”

At this juncture, MIQ facilities now had to accommodate a completely different group of people — Covid-positive people from the community who were placed into quarantine facilities, often unwillingly, and sometimes not even believing Covid was real. They included people with significant mental-health challenges, criminal convictions for violence, drug and alcohol addictions and gang members. The highly restrictive environment of MIQ made it, Isaac says, the worst place for many of them to be. Their complex needs required wrap-around support that MIQ couldn’t provide. The police and health staff did their best, but the risk of a staff member being seriously harmed felt very real.

The rising heat of volatile situations also caused a change in the protocol on releasing Isaac’s team members’ names in responses to Official Information Act requests about policy advice. Although she believes New Zealanders should have the right to know the names of people providing advice, seeing abusive emails arriving in staff’s personal inboxes prompted her to revisit her position. A seafarer posted a team member’s name and email on social media and encouraged others to flood their inbox with hostile and abusive emails.

“We decided that only the names of general manager level and above should be released because, ultimately, it’s those of us in senior roles who are responsible for the advice and decision making, not our people. If anyone had a problem with the policy advice we provided that should land on me, not my team.”

It was hoped that once the bubble with Australia was re-established, demand for MIQ would tail off. But when relief came, it was only temporary. In October, the elimination strategy was abandoned in favour of suppression. Time in MIQ was reduced from 14 to seven days, with three days self-isolation. On 24 November, the Government announced the reopening of the border with Australia in January, to be followed by rest of the world in February, allowing vaccinated Kiwi overseas to return without the need for MIQ.

For a few days, MIQ workers had an opportunity to catch their breath after five months of relentless pressure and scrutiny. But a new foe surfaced and tipped everything upside down: Omicron.

In late November, nine southern African countries were classified as “very high risk” for the new, highly transmissible variant. Entry was restricted to New Zealand citizens and their immediate families, who were required to spend 14 days in managed isolation. On 21 December, the Government announced the suspension of the border reopening indefinitely. MIQ stays increased again, from seven to 10 days.

Public tolerance for MIQ slumped to a new low. Many people had not participated in the four most recent voucher releases, thinking the border was about to re-open. But now more people were stranded in Australia, having travelled there since the 24 November announcement, intending to return in January. Others had been trapped there since June or July when the bubble first burst, many of them superannuitants at risk of having their super cut: payments cease if the recipient is six months overseas. The iron-clad guarantee of free movement between countries turned out to be as sturdy as wet cardboard.

“There was a sense of lose, lose, lose as we tried to get as many New Zealanders here vaccinated while leaving more New Zealanders overseas in desperate circumstances through no fault of their own.”

When Isaac had started the job in December 2020, she took a 12-month fixed-term contract. After a halcyon, Covid-free summer, friends laughed that she’d be out of a job in six months. Instead, by the end of 2021, Isaac wondered if her job would ever end. She promised her family she would give it her all for 18 months but that was it. “I knew I couldn’t keep going longer than that. If MIQ’s role in the pandemic went on, the best person to take this job forward wouldn’t be me.”

She knew her exhaustion was shared in different ways by many in the community. The day the borders opened with the world in March, allowing New Zealanders to return, was momentous.

“I teared up watching the news footage, knowing that if someone got the worst news in their life about a loved one, they could get on a plane to them. After everything my family had been through, the relief of that, of knowing MIQ was no longer the barrier making their most devastating days worse — I can’t describe what that was like.”

This June, the last of the MIQ hotels closed. Isaac’s team shrank to six, and MIQ has engaged in a process of review and planning for the future. “When you are fighting the fire, you have no time to think about water infrastructure.” In her last few months, work included supporting the preparation of a readiness plan that will be regularly updated, as well as pulling apart the previous systems, processes, and decisions, and designing better ways of doing things if MIQ is ever needed again.

“It wasn’t easy [work] given the hours, the intensity and reading most days about what a crap job you were doing.”

Part of the reflection is taking on board the April judgement of Justice Mallon, who ruled on a High Court case taken by the Grounded Kiwis advocacy group. Justice Mallon found that the way New Zealand’s borders were managed during part of the Covid-19 pandemic did, in some cases, impede the right of returning Kiwi in a way that was not justified in a free and democratic society. The judicial review focused on the months Isaac identified as the eye of the firestorm ” between 1 September and 17 December 2021. While the voucher system was not deemed to be an unjustified infringement “the virtual lobby did not prioritise New Zealand citizens over non-citizens and nor did it prioritise on need or the delay experienced by a citizen”, Mallon wrote.

Isaac knows that some of the criticisms lobbed at MIQ by the media, the Ombudsman, members of Parliament and the general public were valid.

“Their commentary and feedback was an important part of transparency and accountability because we were doing something that had never been done before, and that is stripping New Zealand citizens of their right to return home when they wanted or needed to. Some things were picked up and changed because of that scrutiny. Sometimes it was the only way people could be heard.”

If MIQ is ever required in the future, Isaac hopes the people in charge of designing the key parts of system will be in the same agency as the people implementing it, “because there’s little worse than being in a meeting and reviewing applications for early or temporary release where you have no discretion, yet you are the ones blamed for the decision. And, at the end of the day, the intricacies of government decision making doesn’t matter to the people who didn’t get to be with their dying family member.”

She often thinks about those people for whom MIQ caused enormous distress as well as the 230,000 people who were able to return to New Zealand in a way that protected the community and saved lives.

“It was far from perfect and we wouldn’t do it the same way again but we can also say we gave it everything we had.”

For now, Isaac has no idea what her post-MIQ future holds professionally. She’s not even sure what she wants to do apart from spend time with her family.

“I’m 40 years old,” she says, “and it’s possible this may have been the most important work I will do in my life.”

A warm welcome home from Isaac’s children.
A warm welcome home from Isaac’s children. Photos courtesy Kara Isaac.

Yvonne van Dongen is a freelance journalist based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

This story appeared in the September 2022 issue of North & South.