MIQ Covid 19 lockdown: Department of Social Development wants $16,000 back from Kiwi couple

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Pensioners stuck in Australia face the prospect of a $16,000 bill from the Department of Social Development.

“We have stopped your payments and you will have to repay the money you owe,” the government ministry told pensioners who have been stranded overseas for nearly a year.

The December 6 letter from the Department of Social Development to Maureen and Rob Wardle, octogenarians from Bay of Plenty, was like a bombshell.

‘Our super New Zealander was arrested on November 9,’ a worried Maureen Wardle told the Herald today, explaining the couple’s financial and emotional distress.

But the biggest blow was the department’s demand before Christmas that the Wardles repay all the money they received from New Zealand while in Australia.

Because the Wardles left New Zealand last April, they exceeded the 26-week maximum allowed for Kiwi pensioners while still receiving their super.

Rob Wardle now owes $7,676.33 and Maureen Wardle $8,533.17, bringing the total to $16,209.50.

And the ministry wants its money back.

For three months, the couple has not received any income from MSD and no aid has been provided by the Australian government to help those trapped in this territory which looks like a twilight zone.

“Another shock was receiving letters saying we owe $16,209.50,” Maureen Wardle told the Herald today.

“As you can imagine, this has all been a huge worry for us. We’re over 80 and not computer savvy. We just want to get home to Work and Income to talk to someone. one in person,” she said.

No Air New Zealand flights for this couple - in lockdown.  Photo/Alex Burton
No Air New Zealand flights for this couple – in lockdown. Photo/Alex Burton

MSD’s December 6 letter was from an international customer service manager based at Kordia House, Willis St, Wellington. It says: “We always want to make sure we’re doing things right for people, so we recently looked into your payments after it was discovered that you left the country on 25/04/21 on flight number NZ149.

“Because you have received a New Zealand retirement pension, we can continue to pay you for the first 26 weeks of your stay abroad as long as you return within 30 weeks. If you do not return within 30 weeks , we will have to stop your new Zealand Pension from the day after you leave the country.

“We wrote to you about this on 10/27/21 and I am contacting you again to inform you that we have overpaid you. You must refund a sum of money. From 04/26/21 to 11/09/21, unfortunately, you received money from us that you were not entitled to because you were abroad,” MSD said.

Maureen Wardle was overpaid by $8533.17 and Rob Wardle by $7676.33.

The means they could now repay were listed as being via internet or telephone banking.

But the couple say they have no money because they needed it just to survive all those months trapped in Australia.

Not only that, but she worries about how they will continue to afford to live with New Zealand’s borders closed and unable to return to New Zealand.

Andrew Bayly: Worried about people like the Wardles stuck in Australia.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Andrew Bayly: Worried about people like the Wardles stuck in Australia. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Opposition revenue spokesman Andrew Bayly expressed deep concern about the couple. He says situations like theirs should never have happened.

Bayly has been in contact with other couples like the Wardles. He dealt with a number of trapped Kiwi pensioners in Australia and one in Morocco.

“The problem of retirees who are stuck overseas and have been unable to secure a place at the MIQ is widespread. this difficult situation,” Bayly said today.

Given that many seniors rely on their super to pay for their living expenses, it is appalling that there is such a callous approach that many retirees are faced with the prospect of seeing their super coupe or, in some cases, of having to pay back their super, he said. .

“It was the government’s mismanagement of the MIQ that did not allow them to return to New Zealand within the six month period. It is essential that this situation be clarified and made clear to pensioners who have made genuine attempts to return to New Zealand. New Zealand on time. It’s just unfair,” Bayly said.

Louise Upston doesn't think the situation is fair.  Photo / Paul Taylor
Louise Upston doesn’t think the situation is fair. Photo / Paul Taylor

Opposition spokeswoman for social development and jobs, Louise Upston, said she had tried to help Kiwis trapped overseas and the situation for the Wardles was appalling.

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” she said.

“Throughout their fault they are unable to return to New Zealand. There will be many more people like them. They shouldn’t be penalized like this where there is a lack of portability,” Upston said.

She tried to avoid problems by proposing an amendment to the law last year, but she said the government had not accepted the extra soap opera.

Maureen Wardle said the couple traveled to Australia last April so Rob Wardle could have surgery there. It was while he was recovering that the borders were closed, which she says they weren’t expecting.

“We go to Australia in the winter months when New Zealand is cold and wet. We go to the Sunshine Coast, an hour north of Brisbane,” she said.

They have a small two-bedroom villa there.

Rob Wardle’s operation took place in Australia last year. When asked why they didn’t return in July when Kiwis across Tasmania were asked to board, Maureen Wardle said illness prevented that option.

“Unfortunately my husband has an aortic aneurysm which has required multiple surgeries. He had another endoleak and returned to the hospital on July 21 for catheter therapy for embolization with angiography.

“Our New Zealand pension is our main source of income because interest rates are so low on investments that we have become dependent on them, you can imagine our distress when it was cut through no fault of ours. ‘found it physically impossible to return to New Zealand within the Covid delays,” she said.

Their New Zealand residence is at Papamoa Beach.

“We’ve got two cars in the garage there plus a house full of furniture and food in the fridge and freezer all going potty while we’re stuck in Australia. We pay council rates, have a guy who mows the grass fortnightly and pay insurance,” she said.

“Our problems started in February 2020 when we returned to Australia earlier than usual as my husband needed surgery. We had every intention of returning to New Zealand when he was finished, but Covid hit,” she said.

“We applied for a hotel quarantine waiver due to my husband’s health issues, but were denied.

“Then there was a bubble and we were able to fly to New Zealand in April 2021, so we stayed for a week and checked our house,” she said.

They then returned to Queensland.

“My husband had further surgeries that week and by the time he recovered the borders were all closed again. We are New Zealand citizens and just want to come home. The health of my husband deteriorated during Covid and last year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s which is just an added worry for us,” she said.

Keith and Michele Gorrett, trapped in Queensland since last winter.  Photo / supplied
Keith and Michele Gorrett, trapped in Queensland since last winter. Photo / supplied

The Herald yesterday shed light on the similar plight of another couple, British man Keith and his Kiwi wife Michele Gorrett.

The Hobsonville couple left last winter to see family and friends, when the borders were open, but since then they have not been able to return and have been sleeping on a friend’s couch.

George van Ooyen, chief executive of the department’s customer service support group, said his entity appreciated the difficult circumstances many retirees faced.

Applicants were reviewed individually, he said.

“We are considering requests on a case-by-case basis for superannuation and veteran’s pension payments to continue beyond the 26-week temporary absence period, under the portability provisions*.

“This is available for people whose absence from New Zealand is solely related to the closure of the travel bubble, and it will continue for as long as necessary.

Unqualified super and veteran pension partners, who had been absent for more than 30 weeks due to circumstances they could not reasonably have foreseen, can contact the department to receive the first 26 weeks of payments without having to make a refund, van says Oyen.

The assessment of this will take into consideration their situation, that of their eligible partner and whether the ineligible person’s situation is beyond their control.

“If they cannot be reinstated to their partner’s pension, the ineligible partner can apply for a main benefit on their own. We encourage New Zealanders overseas to contact us and discuss how we may be able to help within the parameters of discretion legislation we allow,” he said.

A ministry toll-free number is available from Australia. This is 1800 150 479

Joel C. Hicks