Since the 19th of March, 2020, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand closed its borders to everyone apart from citizens, permanent residents, and a small group of critically needed people who have secured a border exemption. For those who return, they are required to enter a managed isolation or quarantine facility immediately upon arrival and stay there for 14 days. My family and I recently returned to New Zealand and entered the managed isolation facility in Auckland. I thought it might it be interesting to share our experience of this impressive operation at this unprecedented time in history.
Getting to New Zealand
Some of you may be curious about how I managed to emigrate to New Zealand during the middle of the pandemic. The long and short of it is that for a range of circumstances we found ourselves on the wrong side of the border at the beginning of the pandemic and after a significant effort we were able to re-enter the country at the end of August. It was a long, complicated process that tested many aspects of my character, especially my perseverance. We couldn’t have done it without the amazing support from our friends and our commitment to the country and people of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Getting onto the plane
As soon as we received clearance from Immigration New Zealand we booked our flights on Air New Zealand only to have them cancelled within four weeks of departure. Finally, I called Air NZ directly and asked them why they were being canned and what were the occurrences that were prompting the cancellation. The call centre staff “could not comment”.
As we were also shipping our dog, I looked at which flight she was booked on (I understood that these trade flights were less likely to be cancelled as they were carrying important freight) and booked the same flight. It worked and we were set to leave on the 22nd of September.
Just in case you are wondering, unless you have the necessary border entry documents or status they won’t even check your bags. Don’t bother trying to come and hustle your way through. It won’t help.
Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was an eye opening experience and one that felt almost like being stuck in a Twilight Zone episode. Billboards from international brands promoting a jet setter lifestyle and a “world is your oyster” mindset still littered the airport and reminded me of a very different time. The airport was also devoid of passengers at what would normally be peak hours.
One thing to note is that there are virtually no stores, lounges or restaurants open so if you are travelling with kids or didn’t manage to grab any dinner before you left, I hope you enjoy the food at Starbucks as that was all that was still open. Bring some snacks with you in the very least.
We have to mention how extremely kind and courteous the staff were at LAX. Maybe it was because we were travelling with a baby or because they finally had more time to deliver a personal service. Regardless, it was the warmest experience I have had in the 10 years of using the airport. Thank you, Team LAX!
From a PPE perspective, the moment you step into the airport it is a mandatory mask zone. We were super cautious and brought face shields and copious bottles of hand sanitizer. We also purchased KN95 masks from a retailer in El Segundo and that gave us some extra comfort.
Once we boarded the plane everything felt as normal. The Air New Zealand crew were their usual amazing self (thank you, Elizabeth!) and the service was pretty much as before. The crew were consummate professionals and never once made us feel like they were nervous about looking after a bunch of people who had been in the biggest COVID hotspot in the world. Again, masks were required at all times of the flight and we sanitised every step of the way.
We would recommend that you bring an IPad with some extra movies as the Air NZ inflight selection has decreased in size considerably and I struggled to find anything to watch. Better still bring a good old-fashioned book.
Upon arrival into Auckland International Airport we entered a similarly empty property and were escorted through a health and temperature test and a manual customs and border check. Thankfully, we got our bags in record time (they were waiting for us), and then we excitedly walked through the exit doors to restart our new life in New Zealand.
Entering the Managed Isolation Quarantine facility.
I have heard from other friends who travelled to New Zealand during this pandemic that they were funneled automatically into facilities far from Auckland, such as Christchurch. If this does happen you will be escorted by the Police to another internal flight to Christchurch before you even get out of the plane. If there is no police officer on board then you are probably going to be staying in the Auckland/Hamilton/Rotorua area.
Once we exited through the doors into the arrivals hall we had some help with our bags from a kind police officer and were directed to a bus that announced we were staying at the Sudima Airport Hotel just 5 mins from the terminal (phew!). I am not going to lie to you, getting onto a single decker capsule with a bunch of people who have a reasonable chance of being infected was scary. Luckily it wasn’t for long and we arrived really quickly at 5:30 AM on the 24th.
After the bus had stopped, we were taken off one-by-one and our bags were then sent directly to our allocated room. Being met by members of the Navy, Police and Army within the hotel and patrolling the exercise area really demonstrated how serious the New Zealand government takes the quarantine process and safety of their borders. That being said, when I spoke to the team they were really nice and compassionate people who seemed to care about our wellbeing and of their country. In fact, it was really refreshing to see such patriotism manifest itself through kindness instead of austerity.
In fact, it was really refreshing to see such patriotism manifest itself through kindness instead of austerity.
After various tests and interviews with a nurse we then proceeded up to our home for the next 14 days.
The room and facilities.
The accomodation we received was a normal size, double queen room with two beds that would become our sofas, dining table, baby changing station, play room and office for the next two weeks.
If you are hoping for a desk to sit at for our hours and work then think again. The table we had was a side table that was attached below the TV. I found that getting work done in my own environment was challenging and all of my preconceived ideas of using the time to write white papers and clear my inbox quickly went out of the window. Instead those objectives were replaced with almost unlimited time to be with my family and to engage in more creative activities. I brought a watercolour set with me and started drawing dragons for my son. I caught up on the unread books on my Kindle, built a 3,000 piece LEGO model and just spent more time talking with my whānau.
I brought a watercolour set with me and started drawing dragons for my son. I caught up on the unread books on my Kindle, built a 3,000 piece LEGO model and just spent more time talking with my whānau.
We received three meals a day all of which were more than suffice for our needs. We had a few sneaky deliveries from Domino’s, Uber Eats and some groceries from Countdown. There was a small minibar fridge for milk, butter etc. The hotel menu was varied and generally yummy (not including the one below 😉).
The bathroom sink doubled up as our vehicle for dish washing as well as for our sanitary needs. This was a little challenging as it was a little small and not really designed for washing baby bottles but we got by. We learnt to use the bath tub as a second sink to a certain degree. Bringing some paper plates and cutlery might have been a better idea in retrospect.
Bringing some paper plates and cutlery might have been a better idea in retrospect.
For safety reasons, the housekeepers do not clean your room, however they will give you the tools to do it yourself if you so wish. Try and bring a small bottle of washing up liquid in your checked baggage.
From an exercise/fresh air perspective, we were fortunate to be at one of the larger facilities in the country that had a more substantial outside space than others. What was once the main car park for the hotel has now been repurposed into a communal, exercise area for guests. This zone was an essential breath of fresh air for us all and was a lifeline for those with kids who needed to get outside on their scooters.
The car park also became a canvas for kids (and adults, ahem) to express their creative side:
The facility offered us free dry cleaning for ten items, per week, per guest. Whilst this was helpful, I would recommend that you bring enough clothes for at least two weeks as ten items is quite a small load.
Finally, the wifi generally behaved well, however when I had an important Zoom call I defaulted to my Vodafone NZ hotspot to avoid any hang-ups. The channels on the TV are a bit limited so if you are a telly addict you will be grateful for Netflix or Disney+.
If there is one word that sums up the whole MIQ experience it is ‘safety’. From the daily health checks by a nurse and the military personnel on site, to the sheer amount of free PPE available, the facility felt like a place where we were secure. This is important as there is a reasonable likelihood that one of the guests may have contracted COVID in their travels to New Zealand and was something that kept us mildly fearful for the entire stay.
From the daily health checks by a nurse and the military personnel on site, to the sheer amount of free PPE available, the facility felt like a place where we were secure.
A couple things I learnt during the stay in this regard:
- Don’t worry about bringing KN95 or other more specialist masks into the facility. The staff are focused on traceability of all COVID prevention measures and as a result they want you to wear the surgical masks that they provide.
- There is no room for error in the wearing of masks. They are to be worn from the moment that you open your door. If you are a disbeliever in wearing a mask (hopefully not too many people still have that view) do not come to New Zealand right now.
- Some of the guests were rampantly trying to stay fit and their commitment sometimes meant that they disregarded other guests’ social distancing requirements. If this bothers you I would recommend avoiding the peak times and getting out there early.
- The team will test you for COVID twice during your stay without fail (usually on day 3 and day 10). These tests are not the mouth swabs like those used at the American testing centres. The tests here are the nasal swabs which require the nurse to probe your nasal cavity to a degree where it feels like they are touching your brain! Your eyes will water and if you have kids there will be tears, however it is the most effective testing method in the world and you will just need to suck it up (not literally).
The other guests
As I am a consummate chatterbox I did manage to chat to a number of the guests in the facility and I learnt a few interesting things that I thought would be important to share:
- A number of guests (especially those from the US) classified themselves as “COVID Refugees”. Having spent time with people who are actual refugees from war torn countries this terminology felt inconsiderate to those who are trying escape real oppression. Just be prepared to meet some “characters” inside… 😉
- By and large most of the guests I spoke to were intending to stay in NZ for 8-9 months and then head back to their countries of residence. Whilst I have seen evidence of a “brain gain” for New Zealand since COVID hit in my business, I am not convinced that these individuals are here to stay for long periods of time.
- Some of the guests are dying for a chat so don’t be nervous to get out there for a conversation. I met the Captain of the Italian team competing for The America’s Cup, a tree surgeon from Lake Tahoe and lots of stay-at-home Dads, all of whom had great stories to tell.
Checking out of the facility and checking in to New Zealand.
After 14 days in a tight space we were naturally excited to leave but were really appreciative of the safety of this faciity and the freedom that it provides to all arrivals after their stay.
When it came to leaving the facility it was efficient and smooth. We had recently purchased a car in New Zealand so the dealership delivered it to our facility and left the keys with the reception. If you don’t have a car then there are lots of Ubers and taxis that you can book.
The New Zealand government has delivered to the World a masterclass in how to manage a global pandemic. The fact that in the space of a few months they had developed a quarantine process and network of facilities that work this smoothly and effectively is something to be applauded. All we can say is a huge “thank you”.