New Zealanders travelling home from overseas are unable to book managed isolation as the system is full.

The government is yet to release dates beyond May, and it’s stopped re-releasing people’s cancelled bookings while it accounts for the loss of the Pullman Hotel, which is steadily being emptied in order to upgrade processing protocols and install more CCTV.

People logging into the booking website will encounter a calendar showing dates from Feb 2 through until 31 May – each struck out with a little grey cross.

Advice from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday, to “keep checking” for regular cancellations, was promptly superseded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which runs the hotels.

“Cancelled vouchers that would normally be released back into the Managed Isolation Allocation System will be kept as additional contingency for a short period as we navigate through this current situation,” it said.

Without the Pullman Hotel MBIE said it still has some contingency left in the system. Motueka travel agent Jeremy Matthews has customers lining up for managed isolation bookings. He said it took about just half an hour for April and half of May to book out.

“It really was like watching sand drip through an hourglass. There’s quite a deep level of frustration about how quick it is and I think it reflects a lot of demand and also a lot of panic.”

He knew of people already making online logins in preparation to secure space in December – and said people who had hoped to snap up someone else’s cancelled booking in the meantime were likely to feel despondent.

“At best it will be frustration and at worst it will make people who are in a very stressful situation – it will put them in a pretty awful space really.”

Asked if the government will consider making more spaces available in managed isolation, Ardern gave the same answer on Sunday she has repeated for weeks.

“No we are not currently increasing capacity. Something that we have to keep in mind is that with every person that returns, there’s an increased risk to New Zealand. We have to manage that risk by making sure we have numbers coming back that we can manage as safely as possible,” she said.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Pullman Hotel would likely be empty by Saturday, and stay offline for about two more weeks.

In a statement, MBIE said the Managed Isolation and Quarantine system had a contingency of around 400 rooms for emergencies, including when a facility can’t accept new arrivals “as is currently the case with the Pullman Hotel”.

The hospitality sector remains impacted by COVID -19 and with border restrictions in place, the missing international visitor spend will, according to Chris Roberts, CEO of TIA, be another $1.5 billion per month for February and March. ‘In all, a $6 billion hole in summer.’

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