Government ministers wanted a bespoke MIQ for athletes, but were warned of public backlash

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As returnees compete with international sports players for coveted places at MIQ, documents from RNZ show government ministers lobbied for a dedicated and bespoke sports isolation hotel.

Documents from August 2020 on upcoming tournaments show that sports codes were well aware of the space they would use in MIQ.
Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

The idea was rejected by officials who examined options in Queenstown, then Rotorua and Wellington in February, and each time saw a shortage of resources – and the risk of a public backlash.

International sports players can enter the country using border exemptions for essential workers, but documents from August 2020 discussing upcoming tournaments show codes were well aware of the space in MIQ they would use. .

New Zealand Cricket spoke of a potential “encroachment” on public resources, while officials spoke of the “perception that sports teams are displacing New Zealanders”.

Ahead of the Women’s Rugby World Cup, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Sports Minister Grant Robertson asked the Department of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) for cost estimates for an MIQ dedicated to sports in Queenstown.

When officials reported in February, they said it would be difficult.

“A scoping visit was undertaken by MBIE to Queenstown in August last year to examine the potential for creating a sports-based MIF. The visit identified two hotels as potentially meeting MIF requirements,” he said. explained James Johnson, responsible for MIQ’s allocation and procurement policy.

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“There are limited health resources in the Queenstown area and manpower constraints… there are also practical considerations which make Queenstown an unsuitable place.”

Officials noted that there was no tertiary health facility in Queenstown and that health workers would have to be brought in from Dunedin and Invercargill – at a fairly high cost.

There was also a “serious” shortage of security officers in the district and not enough training facilities available.

Officials estimated it would cost at least $ 776,000 to set up the hotel and $ 4.2 million per month to operate it, not including the costs of health personnel and police.

Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult said he was disappointed the idea was ultimately scrapped. He had spoken to officials and felt it could have been a boost to the local economy and morale.

“It would have caused people to stay in the neighborhood. Obviously, some activity for restaurants and accommodation. Plus, the possibility of having games in the neighborhood would have attracted visitors,” Boult said.

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Later in February, ministers asked MBIE to perform a similar cost analysis for MIQ sports hotels in Rotorua and Wellington, where they noted there was better access to health workers and sports grounds.

MBIE found it could be done for between $ 3.1 and $ 3.6 million per month, but it highlighted another set of challenges.

In a briefing to ministers, he warned that “incoming sports teams often present complex needs for their stay” with the example of ice baths, in-room exercise equipment and additional health and safety measures.

“However, the introduction of an additional facility solely dedicated to the treatment of incoming sports teams would likely create a negative reaction from the public due to the perception of preferential treatment.”

Officials said these complex needs would also place a greater burden on all staff working in the hotel, compared to a regular MIQ – and warned that other sectors – like construction and education – could also start asking for dedicated MIQ facilities.

In a statement provided to RNZ, an MIQ spokesperson explained that the idea of ​​a sports isolation hotel had ultimately “not progressed”.

Instead, 448 rugby, cricketer and netball players from 13 teams were housed in a regular MIQ – the Castle on the Park in Christchurch – and received a training waiver by the Director General of Health to visit a sports field nearby.

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“These training facilities operate under level four restrictions, just like a MIF, but are only used for training purposes for a set period each day and are used exclusively throughout the exemption period by the sports team concerned. This exemption period is always at the end of their stay at MIQ and after the team has met the required criteria, including two negative tests. “

Some cricketers have used Burt Sutcliffe Oval in Lincoln and netball players have trained at Celebration Stadium, while the Pakistani men’s cricket team have had their training exemption suspended after ten positive Covid-19 results.

Seven other athletes from other teams – one in October, two in February and five in January – had also tested positive during their stay.

The ministry said sports teams or players who had not received a training exemption were placed in the same MIQ hotel as the rest of their arrival cohort.

“For example, athletes and players returning from the Tokyo Olympics were accommodated at multiple facilities depending on their day and city of arrival.”

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