Hipkins responds to plight of Kiwi journalist in Afghanistan

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has responded after journalist Charlotte Bellis, who is pregnant and currently living in Afghanistan, spoke out about her plight to gain a space in MIQ.

“I want to be clear, there is a place in MIQ for people with special circumstances like Ms Bellis," Hipkins said. "No one’s saying there is not."

“I understand she wanted to return on a specific date and that officials reached out to her for more information shortly after looking at her application. The emergency allocation criteria includes a requirement to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days. Ms Bellis indicated she did not intend to travel until the end of February and has been encouraged by MIQ to consider moving her plans forward."

The Covid-19 response minister, joined by Ministry of Health Science adviser Ian Town, says the risk from the vaccine is "by far outweighed by the risk of getting Covid-19".

Bellis had addressed this earlier after MIQ head Chris Bunny also highlighted the two week requirement.

"(Bunny) says I was invited to reapply within 14 days of travel. For the record - our rejection email states even if we apply within 14 days, we have no evidence that we need time-critical treatment," Bellis tweeted.

"We had provided 59 documents to MIQ and Immigration NZ including letters from obstetricians, our due date, medical documents and that we were in Afghanistan. What more evidence did they need for time critical, medical treatment?"

Bellis had said she was unable to stay in Qatar as it was illegal to be unmarried and pregnant, while her partner was stuck in Kabul.

After the Government's announcement that the borders were scheduled to reopen in late February, Bellis booked flights to return home. She was only allowed to stay in her partner's home country of Belgium for three months of every six, and the pair only both had visas to live in Afghanistan.

A senior Taliban contact had told her they could live there. After the first border opening date was delayed and the new MIQ spots paused, Bellis and her partner applied for an emergency MIQ spot. They were rejected last week.

"Firstly, because our travel dates were more than 14 days out, something we did purposefully because flights are difficult to get out of Kabul and to give us time to appeal if we were rejected," Bellis wrote in an opinion piece for the NZ Herald.

"And secondly, because MIQ said 'you did not provide any evidence' that 'you have a scheduled medical treatment in New Zealand', that it is 'time-critical' and that 'you cannot obtain or access the same treatment in your current location'.

Hipkins said he also understood officials invited Bellis to apply for another emergency category. "I encourage her to take these offers seriously."

“I also understand she was offered New Zealand consular assistance twice since she returned to Afghanistan in early December but has not responded. Again, I encourage her to take up any offers of assistance."

Bellis posted a rejection letter to Twitter on Sunday which said more information was required.

It said she originally applied under the category for people who needed access to time-critical medical treatment, it then stated that application was deactivated due to the travel date being greater than 14 days away from application.

It then suggested she apply under the category that she was in a location or situation where there was a serious risk to safety.

Bellis responded reiterating that the cause for return was time-critical medical treatment.

"You have all our information. You know our situation. I was it on the record that there is no change to our circumstances, no new evidence or information you have received."

Hipkins said the emergency allocation criteria catered "for a wide range of scenarios which can include specifically for an expectant mother or bringing their partner home to support them".

"This includes for medical treatment if a mother is overseas and cannot get the required treatment where they are, and allowing people to urgently return to New Zealand to provide critical care for a dependent, such as their spouse or partner who is pregnant."

MBIE told 1News that pregnancy "is not considered an emergency under the emergency allocation criteria but certain conditions during pregnancy may mean that the high bar for an emergency is met".

"The criteria - Category 1a could apply to someone who is pregnant if they require access to time-critical medical treatment which has been scheduled in New Zealand and is unavailable or inaccessible in their current location."

Bellis understood travel was not advised for pregnant people over 35 weeks and did not want to be in Afghanistan after 30 weeks.

“If she comes early, there is no premature care here really, it would be kind of 'wrap her in a blanket and say a prayer'," she said about her baby.

She said the only backup plan is to go to her partner's home country, Belgium.

“But I would be an illegal overstayer by the time she is born,” Bellis said.

National's Christopher Luxon said the situation was a "no-brainer".

"How you can not have a pregnant New Zealander, unmarried, living in Afghanistan, not coming home is a big challenge and that should be expedited as quickly as possible.

Hipkins said the Government had signalled there would be changes at the border "and will be announcing these soon".

“While MIQ has had to make some difficult choices, I don’t want us to lose sight of the reason MIQ was set up in the first place. It has served New Zealand exceptionally well, saved lives and hospital admissions and kept our health system from being swamped, unlike the situation in many other countries."