By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand’s once lauded COVID-19 response took a hit on Wednesday, when a High Court judge ruled a system used to allocate places in border quarantine facilities infringed on some citizens’ right to return home.
New Zealand has recently eased border restriction but during 2020 and 2021 it had some of the toughest border controls in the world.
Citizens looking to return had to either make emergency requests to the government or secure a spot in state quarantine facilities, called MIQ. Due to demand outstripping hotel rooms, a type of lottery system was introduced.
It left tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders cut off from families back home. Critics called the system unfair, something that the judgment released Wednesday by High Court Justice Jillian Mallon agreed with.
Mallon said restrictions preventing a person from being able to enter their country for three months couldn’t be justified and evidence indicates at least some New Zealanders experienced unreasonable delays.
“The combination of the virtual lobby and the narrow emergency criteria operated in a way that meant New Zealanders’ right to enter their country could be infringed in some instances,” said Mallon.
However, Mallon did find that requiring returning New Zealanders to quarantine was not in itself an unjustified infringement.
The decision is a blow for the government, whose once lauded response to the pandemic has been taking a hit domestically as people push for borders to reopen more quickly and other measures such as mask wearing mandates to be removed.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the government welcomed the determination that requiring returnees to quarantine was lawful and acknowledge the court found the quarantine allocation system may have infringed on some New Zealanders rights.
“We are carefully considering the court’s decision,” he said.
New Zealanders and Australians can now enter without quarantine and those from visa waiver countries such as the United States and Singapore will be able to enter from 11.59 pm on May 1.
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Kim Coghill)