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BusinessApril 1, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 1: 61 new cases in NZ; testing criteria change

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For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work hereNew Zealand is currently in alert level four. The country is shut down, apart from essential services. For updated official government advice, see here.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by The Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here.

6.30pm: The day in sum

  • Shane Jones raised the spectre of a return to the Ministry of Works, as part of the government’s push to find “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects
  • An announcement on the procurement of more ventilators for the nation’s hospitals is “imminent”
  • Work and Income received 75,000 calls in just the last four days, many from the newly unemployed, and is struggling to cope with the load
  • Finance minister Grant Robertson suggested people look at the great depression as a marker for how bad things will get in the NZ economy and defended the decision to let today’s minimum wage increase stand.
  • Sixty-one new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand were announced, bringing the total to 708. Fourteen people are in hospital, with two in ICU but in a stable condition.
  • MediaWorks staff are being asked to take a voluntary 15% pay cut for six months
  • It was announced the Pricewatch email account for reporting potential price gouging received almost 1,000 emails in little over a day.
  • Australian retailer Harvey Norman stopped paying rent on some of its New Zealand locations.

5.40pm: Close to 100,000 people sign petitions calling for housing relief

A total of 95,000 New Zealanders have signed two petitions on housing issues related to the Covid-19 fallout. As of writing, a call for rent and mortgage payments to be suspended that is hosted on the community petition platform Avaaz has attracted 84,614 digital signatures, while a petition on Action Station calling for the same rent and mortgage amnesty, along with other housing relief, has 10,415 signatures. The two petitions will be presented to Green Party co-leader and housing spokesperson Marama Davidson in an online event broadcast on Zoom and Facebook tomorrow night at 7.30pm.

4.25pm: Business details removed from cluster reporting

Today’s Ministry of Health table showing the locations of significant clusters of Covid-19 cases looks a little different than yesterday’s. While the March 31 table included the names of venues, including the Assisi Rest Home in Hamilton, the Redoubt bar in Matamata and the Boomrock wedding venue in Wellington, today’s numbers refer only to ‘a bar’ and ‘a rest home’. The number of clusters has also halved, a result of new Ministry of Health guidelines that localised outbreaks must comprise more than 10 cases to be classified as a ‘cluster’.

Source: Ministry of Health, April 1. * Decrease in case count is due to probable case being downgraded to suspect.

3.15pm: Almost 1,000 reports to email address for reporting possible price gouging

At her daily media briefing, prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that MBIE’s Pricewatch email address for the public to report potential price gouging had received 990 emails by 9am this morning. The email address was announced at the PM’s briefing on Monday. The most common complaint was the high price of cauliflower, she said, with some reports of prices of up to $13. Other products to feature included hand sanitiser, bread, meat, face masks and garlic.

The PM poured cold water on optimism over lower numbers of new cases in recent days, saying it was more to do with testing capacity. “While on the face of it that may seem to be a heartening number relative to the figures we’ve had so far, I want to stress that it is too early to assess.” She said part of the reason for the drop was logistical. “We do see a bit of a change over the weekend. Some people’s access to their GPs and therefore testing – even though we have those clinics available – is impacting those numbers over the weekend. We’ve talked to the director-general about what we can do to get consistency, because that’s two days out of seven where we can’t really afford to have those testing numbers fall away.”

She admitted that it wasn’t yet clear how much community transmission was taking place, so testing capacity was being ramped up. “I think we only need to look at some of the clusters we’ve had in our community to see just how quickly Covid-19 could spread if we weren’t at level four.”

In response to a question about the reported privacy risks of Zoom, the software used by parliament to meet during the outbreak, the PM said that it had been decided that some highly sensitive agenda items would not be discussed using the platform.

2.55pm: Harvey Norman stops paying rent on NZ stores

In what is likely a sign of things to come for the commercial property sector, Australian home appliance retailer Harvey Norman has informed landlords around New Zealand that it will cease paying rent on a number of its retail locations, Stuff reports. The rent abatement notice may be a result of Harvey Norman including in their leases a ‘non-access clause’ which allows the tenant to stop paying rent temporarily in the case of an emergency, though neither landlords nor Harvey Norman itself have yet confirmed that this is the case.

1.45pm: Media crisis deepens

Outside some of the state-funded operations, the New Zealand media is in acute crisis mode. The latest headline: MediaWorks staff are being asked to take a voluntary 15% pay cut for six months, reports MediaWatch. It follows NZME, owner of the Herald and NewstalkZB telling staff that redundancies are inevitable and imminent. A number of contributors to the Herald have today been told their contracts are being terminated.

1.35pm: 61 new cases of Covid-19 in NZ

There are 61 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, Dr Caroline McElnay, the director of public health, has just announced at today’s briefing. That’s 47 positive tests and 14 probable cases. The total now stands at 708.

Fourteen people are in hospital, with two in ICU but in stable condition.

Just over half of the cases have a link to overseas travel, with 30% a link to known cases. Confirmed community transmission is only 1% but they continue to look for further examples.

A new case definition will be issued today for diagnosis and testing. As signalled by Ashley Bloomfield yesterday, this means anyone with respiratory symptoms that are “consistent with Covid-19 disease” should be approved for testing. It removes any requirement for a link to overseas or a known case. Clinical discretion remains.

“We do know this will results in more testing being done, which is good, and which we are prepared for,” said McElnay.

The current capacity is 3,700 tests a day; based on the last week the average daily tests completed is 1,843.

There are currently eight testing labs operating, and by the end up the week that will be up to 10.

Yesterday, 418 close contacts were traced.

Sarah Stuart-Black of Civil Defence began her briefing with a “shout out to our sign language interpreters”. This comes after reports yesterday the interpreters had been getting attacked online. She also acknowledged the importance of iwi in the crisis response.

The new case count over the last seven days: 85, 83, 63, 74, 76, 58, 61.

“I think those numbers are encouraging but it’s much too early to say that that actually means,” said McElnay.

The number was expected to continue to rise with more testing.

Challenged on the decline in number of tests over recent days, McElnay said, “We really don’t know whether it’s less people presenting for testing or whether it’s lower disease. We’re seeing a plateauing of the number of tests. It’s much too early to read into those figures.”

She pointed out that weekends often saw a fall-off. “We need to use a longer lens”, she said.

Chris McDowall’s charts visualising Covid-19 in New Zealand will be updated soon. If you haven’t already, check out yesterday’s here. It’s a very eloquent expression of the state of things.

12.45pm: Twyford hints changes coming on butcher openings

Phil Twyford, the minister for economic development, has been taking questions at the scrutiny committee, alongside Paul Stocks from MBIE. After an aphorism heavy opening statement which included quoting Grant Robertson and misquoting former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Twyford was grilled on the prohibitions on retailers, particularly the banning of bakeries, butchers and green grocers.

“We’ve effectively shut down the economy,” said Twyford. There would of course be inconvenience but it was about the “overriding imperative of stopping the spread of this virus”. The goal was always “reducing contact and movement”. He said they had begun with a “clear principle based approach”, but were retaining a “pragmatic” approach and “accepting submissions and arguments” from those affected, and reviewing daily.

He said there was currently consideration being given to a revising the status of butchers, particularly in relation to issues around availability of halal meat and animal welfare concerns.

And that’s pretty much a wrap for the Epidemic Response Committee today, ably chaired again by Simon Bridges. Tomorrow from 10am, Mike Bush, the commissioner of police, is in the hot seat. He’ll be followed by Peeni Henare and Sarah Stuart-Black, minister and director of Civil Defence.

11.45am: Robertson defends minimum wage stance

The finance minister has completed his appearance before the parliamentary Zoom-committee. It’s been a little more rambunctious than yesterday, with more headache moments with a bunch of people talking simultaneously, an awkward exchange between Grant Robertson and Simon Bridges about who had whose mobile number, and Gerry Brownlee reminding us for better or worse that adversarialism is not dead, accusing Robertson of “an abdication of responsibility” and being “disingenuous” for suggesting that it was not appropriate for the government to instruct local bodies to desist from increasing rates.

Pressed on the wisdom of continuing with a minimum wage increase given the pressure businesses are under, Robertson said business owners were encouraged to apply for the wage subsidy scheme, and that it was a good time for essential workers such as those in supermarkets to get a pay bump. He said: “I have confidence in our business owners that they are prepared for this.”

As of today the adult minimum wage rises by $1.20 an hour to $18.90.

Robertson earlier stressed that those who have applied but not yet heard back should not apply again; a response it coming soon.

10.35am: Stand down Bloomfield stans

Bad news for the Ashley Bloomfield fan club. He won’t be at the daily briefing today, with Dr Caroline McElnay, the director of public health, filling his shoes, alongside Sarah Stuart-Black of Civil Defence. Jacinda Ardern is expected to give her now standard afternoon press conference at 3pm. Check back here for updates.

10.30am: Grant Robertson faces the committee

“A week ago, let’s look at the last recession. A week later, let’s look at the great depression.”

So said finance minister about the rapidly evolving economic crisis developing in New Zealand and around the world. Robertson said that rapid change was why swift efforts had been taken by the government, for example with wage subsidy money being paid out immediately to businesses that applied.

As of yesterday, the wage subsidy scheme had paid out $4.2bn dollars, and Robertson expected that figure to cross $5bn today.

Robertson also looked ahead to the long term, saying we needed to ask questions now about what we make and do in New Zealand to provide economic activity, the strength of institutions, the role of state, and how we trade with the rest of the world.

On forecasts, Robertson confirmed that the country would be moving well beyond the 15-25% range of debt to GDP that is required by the government’s self-imposed Budget Responsibility Rules. He also confirmed the Budget later this year would be markedly different to what had previously been planned. “We are still going ahead with it, but the focus will be different.”

And on likely levels of unemployment, Robertson said it was impossible to predict exactly how high it will get. However, he noted that it was likely to be worse than that of the Global Financial Crisis, where unemployment peaked at 6.7%, and pointed out that bank economists have predicted anywhere between 8%-30% unemployment.

Committee chair Simon Bridges challenged Robertson on this uncertainty, and Robertson said Treasury would have scenarios and forecasts for the public within days. The minister also pointed out that while level four restrictions had an “intense” impact on the economy, lower levels would also have some economic effect, and it remained to be seen whether the country will move out of level four after four weeks.

Secretary of the Treasury Dr Caralee McLiesh offered some initial projections, saying that GDP reductions could be anywhere between 10-17%, and that unemployment could increase from between 5% to well into double-digits.

10.00am: Economic response committee today focusing on the economy

The stripped down version of parliament is sitting again today over Zoom On the agenda today:

  • Finance minister Grant Robertson
  • Secretary of the Treasury Dr Caralee McLiesh
  • Economist Shamubeel Eaqub
  • Economic development minister Phil Twyford
  • MBIE deputy chief executive Paul Stocks

Watch it live here:

Eaqub has been speaking first today, and among the main concerns he raised was the lack of ability for many people right now to work from home. “We must make sure most New Zealanders have access to the internet,” he said, not just now, but into the future, given the lockdown may last for longer than four weeks, or intermittently be brought back over the year.

He also noted that after the lockdown, “we’re likely to see the global backdrop remain uncertain,” and that borders are likely to remain closed for significantly longer. Because of that, he called for a big expansion in the welfare state to compensate.

9.35am: Mike Hosking: “They were going to die anyway.”

New Zealand’s most prominent radio host Mike Hosking has criticised the government’s decision to lock down the country to prevent lives being lost in the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an interview with epidemiologist Simon Thornley, who himself has written along similar lines recently, Hosking declared that because many of those dying had underlying health conditions, “they were going to die anyway. Something was going to get them, it just happens to be this. Or maybe it wasn’t. Or maybe this exacerbates it. Or maybe this complicates it.”

Following the interview, he described a listener question about countries like Italy burying people “by the truckload” as “alarmist,” and compared the death rates from Covid-19 to that of the flu. “We don’t close borders. We don’t land planes. We don’t crash economies.”

It follows dozens of takes from Hosking on Covid-19 over recent weeks, including denouncing the government for overreacting and denouncing the government for under-reacting. One such editorial, titled ‘Mike’s Minute: If we want to beat Covid-19, shut the country down’, was published as recently as Monday last week.

9.25am: Work and Income struggling under immense load

An unprecedented number of calls are currently coming in to Work and Income, and the organisation is struggling to keep up, reports Radio NZ. 75,000 calls have been made in just the last four days, many from people who are newly unemployed, or are seeking food grants while the cupboards are bare. Beneficiary advocates have been warning for several weeks that this sort of wave has been on the way. The Māngere Budgeting Services Trust is also sounding dire warnings about their empty shelves, and an increasing number of people knocking on their door for help, reports Newshub.

8.40am: Running the numbers on the ‘stay home’ message

You’d have to be living under a rock to not realise that the general public can help prevent a Covid-19 outbreak from spreading by staying home. To show how hard that message is being pushed, Stuff started doing a count. They calculated that since March 25, PM Jacinda Ardern has said “stay home” on TV no fewer than 32 times. Those numbers are sure to grow in the coming days.

8.15am: RNZ reports ventilator procurement announcement imminent

RNZ’s Phil Pennington has interviewed Dr Andrew Stapleton on Morning Report, and flagged a breakthrough in the search for more ventilators. The machines are crucial to treatment of the most acutely affected Covid-19 patients, and Stapleton, who has been tasked with acquiring more units, appeared to suggest he had been successful. “I can tell you there’s going to be an announcement on that fairly shortly,” he told Pennington. “I’m as pleased as I have been for quite some time.” Pennington also reported that nurses have been trained to operate the ventilators, in anticipation of further Covid-19 spread, though also noted that the nurse’s union was concerned about the extra load on its members, and had requested extra overtime pay.

7.45am: Shane Jones raises spectre of a return to the Ministry of Works

In an interview with Mike Hosking on ZB, infrastructure minister Shane Jones has complained that “the bureaucracy has developed a system of contractualism”. He claimed to have encountered it in trying to move major projects forward, and wondered aloud about whether New Zealand needed to return to “something akin to the Ministry of Works” in order to advance the government’s planned ‘nation-building’ programme. Jones and Twyford are currently returning to the public eye for the first time since the virus locked New Zealand down, to talk about their desire for “shovel-ready projects” as part of the massive stimulus the economy will require in coming years.

In a later interview, immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway clarified the government’s position on paying benefits to those here on work visas who become unemployed through the crisis. “We do have the option of paying benefits to those on visas,” he said, “but we have not yet triggered that option.” Hosking signed off the interview in what has fast become the customary current style, by asking Lees-Galloway whether he had Covid-19.

7.20am: The Bulletin’s wrap-up of all New Zealand’s key stories

Taken from The Bulletin, our essential daily 7am news roundup – sign up for that or The Spinoff’s other newsletters here

The government’s approach to fighting the Covid-19 outbreak has faced a robust bout of scrutiny, both from MPs and experts. It only took one sitting day for the new Epidemic Response Committee to show how valuable it will be for measuring the plans being put forward, and holding those making the decisions to account. 

The key evidence on the day came from Sir David Skegg, an Otago University professor of public health. With the clarification that the government’s overall goal is to eliminate Covid-19, Skegg told the committee that there needed to be a much greater focus on expanding the testing and tracing regime, and compulsory quarantine for everyone coming into the country, reports the NZ Herald. “A lockdown on its own is not enough. It’s like pressing the pause button,” he said. “We all know how costly this lockdown will be in human and economic terms. It’s a terrible waste if we don’t pull out all the stops now to maximise our chance to eliminate Covid-19.” 

Skegg’s perspective is that testing has to date been too focused on those with overseas connections, and that previous loosening of the health ministry’s criteria hadn’t reached the clinicians who make the final decisions on whether to test. That view was backed up by Primary Health Organisation clinical board member Dr Garsing Wong, who told Newshub’s Michael Morrah that the criteria should have been widened a long time ago. He also argued that because of previous testing criteria, the actual number of infections is likely higher than the number of confirmed cases.

It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of tests are still coming back negative – a full 97% in fact, even with the tight criteria focusing on the most likely cases. Director general Dr Ashley Bloomfield also stressed that capacity was being increased all the time, and that capacity concerns weren’t a factor in clinician decisions on whether to order a test. PM Jacinda Ardern confirmed later in the afternoon that testing criteria will be changed so that much more take place. During the committee meeting, health minister Dr David Clark also pointed out that contact tracing was being scaled up, and the workforce of Healthline has doubled since the start of the year. Cumulatively, you can look at all of that and say the government and public service is being responsive when legitimate concerns are raised.

There will be plenty more work for the committee to get into, as it takes over a large part of parliament’s role during the lockdown period. Among those appearing today will be finance minister Grant Robertson, key figures at MBIE and Treasury, economist Shamubeel Eaqub, and economic development minister Phil Twyford. The latter’s time will likely partly be taken up with discussion of ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects to get underway as an economic stimulus – and on that point, there was an interesting article from the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Hamish Rutherford arguing for some of the opposition’s senior MPs to be given a much bigger role in managing such projects, given the government has a poor record to date on infrastructure delivery. 

To finish this section with an aside: I mused a year or so ago about how valuable it would be to have select committee meetings be broadcast as a matter of course. The work of MPs involved in yesterday’s Epidemic Response Committee totally reinforces that opinion. In contrast to the often crass stupidity and pointlessness of Question Time, the committee showed MPs as intelligent people, calling on experts and building up evidence, so that the government might make the best possible decisions. Long may that constructive approach continue. 

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.” 

A second nurse in Queenstown has tested positive for Covid-19, reports Crux. It means a further 38 staff members will also be tested, which means the entire workforce of the hospital over the past fortnight will have been tested. The tests are an attempt to understand how the two nurses came to contract the coronavirus, and to rule out community transmission among the staff. Meanwhile, 58 new cases were announced yesterday, which is a lower number than previous individual days – however, that isn’t any cause for relaxation, because of the long lag time that can occur between infection and symptoms. A reminder, we will be publishing a new set of live infographics each day in the aftermath of the new numbers’ release at 1pm.

The PM has rejected a call to implement a nightly curfew on the nation, reports Newshub. She said given the rules already in place, it wasn’t necessary. Those persistently breaking the requirement to stay at home (outside of essential activity) are already being cautioned, arrested and charged. 

By some metrics, New Zealand’s air quality has improved a lot over the course of the lockdown. One News has reported on NIWA data from Auckland, which shows an almost unprecedented drop in air pollution at sites alongside major roads – and they’re expecting similar results from Wellington and Christchurch. Climate scientists say there could be lessons from this experience about the sort of societal changes that would mitigate our emissions. I’d perhaps slightly temper going too far with optimism there – after all, while some are skipping the commute to work from home, others are skipping the commute because they’re not able to work at all. 

6.55am: Siouxsie and Toby on why bubbles really, really matter

The duo whose work has helped so many of us understand key concepts through the pandemic return, showing how popping bubbles will lock us down for longer, and endanger essential workers.

“For almost a week now, every one of us who isn’t an essential worker has been confined to their bubble. We are allowed to go shopping for groceries, to visit the doctor, and to get a bit of exercise if we stay local.

The reason we are doing this is to stop the spread of Covid-19 and to save thousands of lives. And that is no exaggeration. The Ministry of Health have just released the results of modelling led by Prof Nick Wilson from the University of Otago Wellington.

As Ashley Bloomfield put it yesterday, they “paint a sobering picture of what Covid-19 would look like in NZ if we were not taking a decisive and strict approach to our response”.

The worst-case scenario shows 146,000 people in New Zealand would need to be hospitalised. Over 36,000 would be sick enough to require intensive care. And over 27,000 would be expected to die. To put that in perspective, this death toll would exceed that from the first world war and from the 1918 influenza pandemic.”

6.45am: Auckland at level four

This video of Auckland from the road and the air shows how the city looks stripped of people and cars. It’s quite beautiful and oddly moving, and probably a better way to start your day than going straight into hard news, if I’m honest.

6.35am: Questions over reporting grow in China and the UK

Between ‘the lag‘ and asymptomatic carriers, Covid-19 resists even the most well-intentioned and -resourced attempts to truly know how widespread it is, and how many have had it. But two stories which have broken overnight suggest that differences in the way some countries are reporting their data might be distorting our views of how they’re doing against their outbreaks. The Guardian reports that the UK may have under-reported the number of deaths connected to Covid-19 by 24%. The figure is related to deaths earlier in the epidemic, and came because they occurred either at home, or in care homes. Meanwhile, as growing scrutiny of its stubbornly static figures mounts, China has added 1,541 cases to its tally, after scrutiny of its lack of inclusion of asymptomatic carriers.

For now, China’s official tally of the dead from Covid-19 remains 3,305, meaning that the US marked another bleak milestone overnight, with its current death toll of 3,433 surpassing that of the nation where the virus originated. The New York Times reports that the US is bracing itself for the release of new official models projecting the spread of the virus, which are expected to be deeply troubling, and higher than previous more optimistic scenarios. In a frightening development, Louisiana’s dead leapt from 34 to 185 in just 24 hours, a troubling spike because the state is considered to be weeks behind US epicentre New York on its curve.

Elsewhere Spain recorded a new daily record death toll of 838, bringing its total to 8,269, while Italy remains both in a dire situation and trending the right way, with over 800 deaths but just 1,648 new infections, down from nearly 4,000 the previous day. The World Health Organisation has warned that Asia’s battle against the pandemic is “far from over”, while Iran’s infections reached 44,000, with nearly 3,000 deaths as it remains the worst hit nation outside of Asia, Europe and the US. Africa remains mercifully relatively low in infections, with African Arguments reporting around 5,300 for the continent as a whole, with Egypt, Morocco and South Africa reporting the highest numbers.

Meanwhile Germany is turning its worst-hit region into a giant laboratory to study the virus, reports The Guardian. The district of Heinsberg was chosen because it is considered to be two-and-a-half weeks ahead of the rest of the country. “The ‘Covid-19 case cluster study’, launched on Tuesday morning, will follow 1,000 people who have been chosen because they are representative of the German population as a whole.”

5.45am: Who will lead the world after Covid-19?

Colin James is press gallery royalty, and makes his debut for The Spinoff with an excellent analysis of the likely impact of Covid-19, not just on the world economy, but on the global power structure.

“China’s rigid autocracy stifled talk of an epidemic and arguably turned the epidemic into pandemic. But former United States assistant secretary of state for Asia Kurt Campbell points to Chinese internal lockdowns, followed by material assistance to Italy and other nations to fight Covid-19, as potentially giving Xi an edge to claim leadership in changing global systems and governance to China’s advantage.

Xi wants to restore the China which thought itself the centre of the world – at the very time that Trump’s self-absorption and tantrums have been undermining the United States’ 75-year claim to be global leader (as it was in the fight against Ebola)…

There is no new orthodoxy sitting on a United States shelf as Milton Friedman’s was when the Bretton Woods monetary system collapsed in the early 1970s. But Xi would claim there is one on his shelf. That doesn’t mean China’s distorted capitalism is the next orthodoxy. But it does underline that the 500-year ascendancy, then dominance, of ‘western’ thinking, from humanism to neoliberalism, is under challenge.”

Read the full story on The Spinoff

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