How Rotorua said no to more MIQ

The Ibis Hotel in Rotorua has been used as an MIQ facility. Photo: File/Daniel Hines.

When Rotorua was in the running for an additional MIQ facility, what would have been its fourth, a nurse emailed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern directly.

“Nursing morale at the [Rotorua] hospital is extremely low, with serious staff shortages on a daily basis putting both staff and patients at risk.”

That email, sent on September 21 last year, is among a cache of emails and letters obtained via an Official Information Act request that were sent to the highest levels of Government.

Through those messages, and conversations with a number of the key players involved in lobbying behind the scenes, Stuff can reveal how a city came together to say no to more MIQ.

That nurse, whose name is redacted, put the starkest case for the strain additional facilities would place on an already creaking system.

They said that at the time 13 nursing positions were still to be filled, and that “many staff are talking about leaving for different careers”.

“They feel the workplace is unsafe and patients are not getting the care they deserve or require,” they said.

“After discussion with other nurses employed by Lakes DHB, I believe this plan should be stopped immediately.”

The unnamed nurse wasn’t the only person raising healthcare capacity concerns.

“It is our understanding that if just five people were to be admitted to Rotorua Hospital with Covid, our health facility would be considered dangerously overwhelmed.”

That was the view of Rotorua Business Chamber chief Bryce Heard.

Lakes DHB chief Nick Saville-Wood also chimed in, though with a much more business like tone, in a September statement confirming talks with the chief executive of MBIE.

"This discussion noted the considerable pressures upon the DHB currently, with the staffing of the three existing MIQs a factor."

It was a view that appeared to resonate with Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins when he announced, on September 23, that Christchurch would be the location for the new managed isolation facility.

“Other managed isolation facility options were considered in Auckland and Rotorua but were rejected primarily because of health and MIQ workforce constraints,” he said.

However, the role of lobbying was acknowledged in a letter from Hipkins’ office that accompanied the OIA response.

“For Rotorua, community/iwi feedback was also a consideration for not progressing new MIQ facilities in this location.”

An example of the iwi feedback was an email from Tūhourangi Tribal Authority chair Kirikowhai Mikaere and Ngārepo Eparaima.

Their concern was exacerbated by the rumours Rotorua’s Holiday Inn, just a stone’s throw away from the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village, would be the chosen location.

Those rumours were not helped by scaffolding, and a fleet of air conditioning company vans, at the hotel at the time.

“Our people of Tūhourangi and Ngāti Wāhiao collectively assert our strong objection to the proposal of an MIQ at the Holiday Inn in Whakarewarewa, Rotorua,” they said in an email to Ardern and Hipkins.

“The village provides income, shelter and spiritual sustenance for an iwi that has contributed hugely to the fabric of this nation, from the birthplace of tourism, to hosting international dignitaries, and global cultural representation.

“We consider that the imposition of an MIQ in the heart of our papa kāinga and adjacent to our pā constitutes a breach of our rights as Indigenous Peoples which are recognised in Te Tiriti o Waitanga.

“We cannot and will not allow this MIQ to put all of that and our whānau at risk.”

The chairs of the main Ngāti Whakaue entities, Hemi Rolleston, Rawiri Bhana, Malcolm Short and David Thomas, also weighed in with strong opposition in an email, also to Ardern and Hipkins.

“It is not often we need to write to the Crown in our joined up capacity but we do so here out of serious concerns around rumours that the Crown is looking to establish additional MIQ Hotels in our town,” they said.

“Setting aside the fact that you have not consulted us as mana whenua representatives (which of itself is bad form) we wish to make it clear that we do not support any additional MIQ Hotels being established here in Rotorua."

They agreed such facilities were needed, and that Rotorua had a role to play, but argued Rotorua was “carrying much more than its fair share of the load”.

They also cited concerns about the strain on Rotorua's already battered tourism sector, concerns echoed by Heard, who referred to it at one point in the past tense.

“Rotorua's prime economic driver is (or was) tourism. This is not so of any of the major cities in New Zealand, (except Queenstown who only has 23,000 people).)

"Of the city's 11 hotels, three are already taken by MIQ and any further losses would seriously undermine the recovery strategy."

Heard also touched upon another longer running issue that has arisen in Rotorua post-pandemic.

"As a related aside, a large amount of Rotorua commercial accommodation is currently occupied with emergency housing, which has created a number of economic and social issues."

One figure closely involved in talks with the Government over the issue was Te Arawa Covid Response Hub chair Monty Morrison.

He told Stuff when it came to the final decision, the lobbying from Rotorua "had everything to do with it".

"Our ability to come together and speak with one voice was hugely important," he said.

Morrison said Hipkins was always open to dialogue on the issue, and that their work in the past on MIQ and via the Hub had created "a very clear and open relationship".

"We know he [Hipkins] took some time to consider. We just wanted to make sure he had all the best and up to date information and that's where our focus was."

Morrison also touched upon the unlikely political alliance that formed between normally ideologically opposing forces; National Rotorua MP Todd McClay, Māori Party Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi and Rotorua-based Labour List MP Tamati Coffey.

"We don't see it often, but I think it was important for us, and them, having them alongside us."

It was a consensus noted at the time by Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick too.

“The prospect of more MIQ in our city was genuinely worrying, and it was good to see the community and local leaders, including our MPs, getting activated and voicing their concerns."

As for those MPs themselves, Coffey told Stuff they were "all in agreement from the start".

"It was a good lesson for us," he said.

Coffey brushed off questioning about the rarity of the alliance, citing work with Waititi on vaccine drives and RMA changes, though he did admit "will it always happen, not always".

McClay told Stuff he was certain "it was the public pressure and lobbying that stopped it".

He was sceptical of Hipkins' citing health staffing pressures too, saying that was not asked about when Rotorua's three existing MIQ facilities were put in place.

He even said without the public pressure "we would have had two extra in Rotorua".

He welcomed the fact he, Coffey and Waititi had all presented a united voice on the matter, but he did make what could be construed as a dig against his 2014 election rival Coffey.

"It's good the two elected MPs for the area have a feel for what's going on, on the ground."

Stuff was unable to speak to Waititi for this story, despite numerous attempts to make contact, but the Māori Party made its feelings clear on a petition page on their website.

It said the people of Te Arawa and the Rotorua community "have united in their refusal to host a new MIQ facility in Rotorua and the Government needs to listen."

"Rotorua has had enough! They have done their fair share of the heavy lifting for our country and it is time that another region steps up."

-Stuff/Benn Bathgate,

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