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Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at Parliament. (Photo: Mark Mitchell/Getty Images)
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at Parliament. (Photo: Mark Mitchell/Getty Images)

BusinessApril 4, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, April 4: 82 new cases today; Virgin Australia exits NZ

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at Parliament. (Photo: Mark Mitchell/Getty Images)
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at Parliament. (Photo: Mark Mitchell/Getty Images)

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.

7.30pm: The day in sum

  • Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced 82 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, bringing the total to 950, and said the “flattening off” of case numbers was encouraging.
  • Increasing economic nationalism and bidding wars disrupted normal supply chains, with the US being accused of “modern piracy“.
  • A woman was charged with common assault after allegedly punching a supermarket employee in the face in Warkworth yesterday.
  • A new editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggests a “safe haven” programme to protect vulnerable New Zealanders could be instituted if the lockdown doesn’t work.
  • A set of hard-and-fast rules in the form of a legal order was issued by the government (see The Spinoff tomorrow morning for an analysis of what it means in practice).

7.00pm: On The Spinoff today:

6.00pm: Virgin Australia shuts NZ operations with loss of 600 jobs

RNZ is reporting that Virgin Australia has closed its doors in New Zealand, effective immediately, leaving 600 staff – including office workers, pilots and cabin crew – without jobs. E tū union has criticised the airline for not applying for the government’s wage subsidy scheme.

Meanwhile, Qantas and Jetstar have confirmed that around 50 staff of the Australian airline group have tested positive for Covid-19, reports the ABC (republished by RNZ).

4.30pm: Northland DHB responds to Lance O’Sullivan’s testing concerns

Northland DHB has released a video in response to concerns expressed by GP Lance O’Sullivan about the lack of testing for Covid-19 in the Far North. During a Facebook Live video this morning, O’Sullivan criticised the DHB for closing its testing centre at weekends. “I’m just at the Kaitāia Warehouse carpark with a patient that is almost certainly Covid positive. He’s been unwell for six days with fevers. He’s been in contact with a confirmed Covid case.”

“I want to send him up to get tested at the community-based testing station, ’cause we have not been supplied any swabs or any testing gear by the DHB, and it’s closed. Kaitāia – if you have Covid, you wait until Monday and then you come and see us.”

O’Sullivan also claimed there were only four swabs available at the hospital.

In response, the operations manager for Kaitāia hospital, Neta Smith, assured Kaitāia and Far North residents that the seven community testing clinics across Northland, including Kaitāia’s, have been in place for more than two weeks and that after-hours care and testing is available.

“Currently our testing clinic is running out of the whare at the front of the hospital Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm. After hours in Kaitāia we have our GP services and hospital services running 24 hours, seven days a week.

“Anyone with acute respiratory infections and at least one of the following symptoms, like a cough, a sore throat, shortness of breath, head cold, loss of sense of smell, with or without fever, will be tested for Covid-19. We have adequate supplies and equipment to treat you and currently have 120 swabs available in Kaitāia hospital.”

She reiterated that Kaitāia currently has no confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19.

2.00pm: ‘Flattening off’ of case numbers suggests lockdown is working, says Bloomfield

At this afternoon’s media update, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said he believed Covid-19 case numbers may have peaked. “What we have seen over the last four or five days is effectively a flattening off of the number of new cases, including, and this is particularly important, over the last two or three days with that much higher level of testing,” he said. “So we haven’t seen a whole lot more cases – in fact, the test positivity rate has dropped, and that’s good, that’s encouraging.”

Today, April 4, there were 82 new cases. Here are the numbers since New Zealand entered alert level four:

  • April 3: 71
  • April 2: 89
  • April 1: 61
  • March 31: 58
  • March 30: 76
  • March 29: 63
  • March 28: 83
  • March 27: 85
  • March 26: 78

When new case numbers start to drop will be the key signal that the alert level four measures have worked, he said. “I would want to see probably another two or three days before we start to know is that definitely a flattening off, then if it was confirmed we would expect in the coming days that the number of new cases each day would continue to drop.”

Bloomfield also said there was still no data around the ethnicity of Covid-19 cases available, but he was “very keen” to see figures and they would hopefully be available early next week.

1.00pm: 82 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand; new advice on face masks coming

Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield has announced 82 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, comprised of 52 confirmed cases and 30 probable. This brings the total to 950. There have been no new deaths and 127 people have recovered.

Overseas travel was still a link for 47% of cases, said Bloomfield, while 1% have been confirmed as community transmission, and 17% were suspected to be and being investigated. Ten people are in hospital, including one in ICU at Wellington Regional Hospital, all of whom are stable.

“Yesterday we did the highest number of single tests in a day, that was 3,631,” he said at today’s media update. “Our total of Covid-19 tests completed to date is 33,116 and we now have capacity, should we need to, to do over 6000 tests per day.”

He added that there was a high demand for nasal swabs, and “our local manufacturer is ramping up production with 300,000 swabs due over the next three to four weeks”.

Bloomfield said that the three biggest clusters were Auckland’s Marist School, with 60 cases, the Bluff wedding, with 55, and the Redoubt Bar in Matamata, with 54.

On the order issued under the Health Act (see 11.20am update), Bloomfield said the purpose was “to provide greater clarity for everybody about what the expectations are around self-isolation”.

“The notice covers in some detail what those expectations are and it includes a good description of what an acceptable bubble arrangement is as well,” he said. “We also know over this first week that there have been some people who haven’t been following the guidance, and so the notice sets out the rules of what’s expected of everybody and therefore clarifies situations in which police powers may be exercised to ensure that we get that high level of compliance.” 

Dr Caroline McElnay, director of public health, spoke about the updated case definition that was announced earlier in the week, which removed the need for contact with a confirmed case or an overseas travel link for someone to be tested. She said the technical advisory group had decided that fever was no longer a requirement for being tested.

On face masks, McElnay said the technical advisory group was expecting to get advice from WHO (the World Health Organisation) and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in the next few days around whether or not people should wear face masks when out and about. “The best advice at the moment is that basic hygiene measures such as frequent hand washing, physical distancing and sneeze and cough etiquette remain the mainstay in our defence against Covid-19,” she said.

“There are ways in which wearing a mask can be helpful, but there are also ways in which it could be harmful,” she said. “There is some evidence that wearing a mask can also do harm, such as when it leads to people touching their face more often because of the discomfort when wearing a mask. That can increase the risk of contamination to your hand and can also give you a false sense of security. But we acknowledge that these kinds of conversations are important and we do already have some resources about face masks on our website.” 

Healthline wait times were now much shorter, on average about five minutes, she said. “Healthline handled 14,746 calls yesterday.”

McElnay also expressed concern over the trend of people with other health issues leaving it too long to call their doctor “because they believe the focus should be on Covid-19”.

“I want to reiterate that we have the capacity to provide appropriate care so people should act sooner rather than later,” she said.

District health boards are now starting to plan for the thousands of elective surgeries that have been postponed as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, with Bloomfield suggesting they could be rescheduled for an “alert level three-type situation”.

“The DHBs are already working on plans to use both the public and private sector capacity to get those people in to get their surgeries as soon as possible.”

11.45am: Robertson says government talking to major media companies, tourism sector; potential rent freeze for small business

Finance minister Grant Robertson has reaffirmed the government’s statement that New Zealand’s largest magazine publisher, Bauer Media, which closed earlier this week, did not take up the government support available to it. Speaking on Newshub Nation this morning, he said it was important New Zealand had a range of media voices, and broadcasting and communications minister Kris Faafoi was in talks with other major media companies to ensure this would continue to be the case. However, he said New Zealand media was just one of the many struggling sectors at the moment and it was getting as much government attention as it could.

Despite the government providing billions of dollars of assistance to businesses suffering in the Covid-19 downturn, Robertson told Newshub Nation he still expected unemployment to rise above the levels seen in the global financial crisis. Unemployment figures for March were expected to be released by the Ministry of Social Development next week, he said. “We do know that there will be more people unemployed, and so we have to be there to support them. There is no doubt that there have been more applications coming into Work and Income for the unemployment benefit.”

The tourism sector will be “fundamentally changed by what’s happened”, Robertson said. “We want to work alongside those in that sector to make sure that we’ve got a plan for redeployment, for transition. And we do hope that a domestic tourism sector can come back to the fore in the coming months. But the tourism sector is an example of one where there will be significant change and we want to work alongside them to create a recovery plan.”

The finance minister also said work was under way on potential rent arrangements for small businesses struggling to meet costs. “What we’ve wanted in the first instance is for landlords and tenants to negotiate an acceptable solution together. It’s clear in some cases that’s not happening, and so we’ve undertaken some work alongside the Property Council and others on what might be arrangements that the government can support to enable this to carry on. We’re putting that alongside other initiatives we’re looking at for small businesses, and we’ll have more to say about that in the coming days.”

He explained the new rules revealed on Friday, which will allow businesses to put debts into “hibernation”, but only if over 50% of their creditors agreed. “Most of those creditors will have a good understanding of how that business operates. They’ll know whether it was a going concern going into this and whether it should be on the other side.” He said the government had set the rules and the mechanism for creditors and businesses to come to an arrangement in order for debt to be deferred. This would prevent good solid New Zealand businesses going into liquidation unnecessarily.

11.30am: Women’s refuges report rise in domestic violence

The WHO has raised concerns about an international spike in domestic violence during Covid-19 lockdowns. Newshub Nation has reported that two thirds of New Zealand’s Women’s Refuges have seen an increase in family violence since the level-four lockdown began. With safe houses at capacity, they’re using motels and rentals instead.

According to Newshub, police said in a statement they haven’t seen an increase, but anecdotally are hearing about more family violence, and it may now be harder for some to speak up. This reiterates police commissioner Mike Bush’s comments at a media update earlier in the week. Shine, a support organisation for victims, provides a helpline to escape family violence – but spokesperson Holly Carrington said it’s become harder to make that call. “People experiencing domestic violence are going to have so much more difficulty in accessing services and finding a safe space and time to make a call to a helpline,” Carrington said.

Women’s Refuge CEO Dr Ang Jury said victims had lost every protective factor in their lives. Support was still available, however, and despite the lockdown, the safest choice for victims was still to walk out the door.

11.20am: Dr Ashley Bloomfield issues order under Health Act

A set of hard-and-fast rules in the form of a legal order has been issued by director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, exercising special powers as the medical officer of health for all districts under a state of national emergency. The order is effective as of 6pm last night and builds on previous legal edicts closing certain premises and forbidding people to congregate outdoors, and details who can leave their home and when.

It’s mostly information that has been communicated to the public already. As well as essential workers and those assisting vulnerable people, under emergencies and court orders, the order states that people may leave their residence or “bubble” to preserve their or another person’s life, or if needing temporary or emergency residence.

People returning to New Zealand are permitted to travel through New Zealand to return to their homes (provided there’s a low risk of transmission).

In his position as director-general, Bloomfield is also allowed to ask police to “do anything reasonably necessary” to assist in carrying out the order and ensuring compliance.

10.30am: Rugby league’s wild plan to return to the field as soon as May

The NRL could hypothetically return as soon as early May, with teams all living at a locked-down island resort for long enough to play out the rest of the season, according to one proposal floated by the committee tasked with finding ways to salvage the sport after it was shut down by Covid-19. Project Apollo, the working group headed by Balmain Tigers and NSW legend Wayne Pearce, has been told to target July 1 – eight weeks away – as the date for getting players back onto the field.

There are “no bad ideas”, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg has said. One plan the taskforce has reportedly drawn up is to have the competition’s 16 teams, including the New Zealand Warriors, live in quarantine on an island resort (Tangalooma or Moreton Island, both near Brisbane, are two options suggested) where games would be filmed behind closed doors by NRL staff. According to league legend Ben Elias, this plan could have the season back up and running in 3-4 weeks. Like many sports around the world, the NRL is reliant on broadcasting rights deals for its financial survival, and the league’s administrators view the outright cancellation of the season as catastrophic. In the UK’s Super League, the Toronto Wolfpack coach has proposed 60-minute games played in 15-minute quarters as a way of managing the workload of a condensed season. At this stage, no innovation would appear to be completely off the table.

10.25am: Google mobility data reveals how well NZ is complying with its level four lockdown

A giant set of reports released by Google, created using its anonymised cellphone location data reveals the scale of human behaviour change the pandemic has wrought. Using its Maps product to track the aggregate movements of its billions of users, the reports reveal compliance with lockdown rules within regions, and show how different countries’ rules have a direct impact on how their populace has moved since the lockdowns became widespread in March.

Read the full story on The Spinoff

9.50am: If lockdown fails, ‘safe havens’ could be set up for vulnerable people 

If the alert level four lockdown measures fail to stamp out Covid-19, New Zealand could institute a “safe haven” programme to protect vulnerable New Zealanders in their own homes, institutions and communities, suggests a new editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal. These “safe havens” could be rolled out regionally based on the spread of the pandemic, with one of the researchers telling the Herald they could take the form of sectioned-off “islands” within communities.

The editorial, written by a group of University of Otago researchers, sets out a number of factors that will determine if the elimination strategy New Zealand is pursuing succeeds – the likes of high-quality quarantine of incoming travellers, rapid case detection, testing and case isolation, intensive hygiene promotion, physical distancing and a well-coordinated communication strategy. It also says that the strategy will need to be fine-tuned through the use of science and technology as we learn more about how Covid-19 behaves in the New Zealand setting, and that the pandemic has “forcefully demonstrated” the need for effective public health infrastructure and resources.

9.40am: Woman charged with attacking supermarket worker, Air NZ down to seven hours of flights

RNZ reports that a woman has been charged with common assault after allegedly punching a supermarket employee in the face in Warkworth yesterday. In a video posted on social media, National’s Mark Mitchell said the supermarket’s manager was assaulted by a person waiting to enter the store. “There was a flashpoint. A confrontation developed out of that and as a result, the … manager was assaulted and punched in the face.” Mr Mitchell said he was briefed by Warkworth police and urged people to be more tolerant. A 45-year-old woman has been arrested and is expected to appear in the North Short District Court next month.

Meanwhile Air NZ’s head of revenue Cam Wallace has tweeted about the airline’s radically reduced schedule, pointing out that today’s total flying time is less than that of a single one-way leg to Perth.

8.00am: Did NZ really go hard and early?

Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell has analysed the NZ government’s consistent claim that it would “go hard, and go early” in the fight against Covid-19. He finds the contention broadly checks out, with two graphs in particular looking reassuring, plotting NZ’s infection curve’s against those of Italy and Spain, with a line drawn to represent full lockdown. Already there is a glimmer of space opening up against both, and Mitchell is at pains to point out just how lucky New Zealand was to be able to make plans after watching the pace of the virus spread in larger countries which were hit earlier.

“It can’t be overstated how fortunate New Zealand was in still having a small number of confirmed cases by mid-March. Many Western countries reached this stage a week or two earlier, when there was still reluctance to pursue severe physical distancing restrictions. Italy, for example, reached the point on its epidemic curve where New Zealand locked down on February 24, a full month earlier,” Mitchell writes.

“The two countries are no longer comparable, but at the time, Italy was in roughly the same boat as New Zealand; A small number of confirmed cases, mostly from overseas, doubling every two or three days. Italy didn’t put a lockdown in place then. That came weeks later, on March 9, at which point the virus was rampant with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases.”

Read the full story on Stuff

7.35am: Risk of medical supply trade war intensifies

A Berlin interior minister has accused the US of “modern piracy” after a shipment of 200,000 of the crucial N95 masks was co-opted from its intended recipients at the German police. The incident is part of a pattern of increasing economic nationalism and bidding wars disrupting normal supply chains, and diverting medical supplies. The practice has been spearheaded by US president Donald Trump, who this week attempted to force manufacturing giant 3M to send masks made in Singapore and intended for the Asian market to the US. “We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. ‘P Act’ [Patriot Act] all the way,” the US president wrote in a tweet recently. “Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing — will have a big price to pay!”

The US has also contemplated preventing 3M from exporting N95 masks from its US plants, yet critics pointed out that such a move would leave it open to other countries retaliating with their own manufacturing supplies such as ventilator parts. The battle for equipment comes as New York saw its deaths from Covid-19 double in three days, to just under 3,000, as governor Andrew Cuomo said he would sign an executive order permitting the state to seize and redistribute ventilators from hospitals with lower needs to areas most acutely impacted. The US now has over 250,000 cases, with the total doubling every four-and-a-half days, according to The New York Times.

Elsewhere, the UK had its deadliest day yet, with 684 dying in its hospitals in the 24 hours to 5pm Thursday (UKT). Italy recorded a further 766 deaths, though its infection rate continued to slow. Spain appears on the same track, though a few days behind, with 932 deaths, and an infection rate slowing to 6.8%, from a peak of 20% a week earlier. Iran saw 134 more deaths, while Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro remains among the world’s last Covid-19 deniers, affirming his position that that the virus is “not all it’s made out to be”.

6.45am: ICYMI – on The Spinoff yesterday

The latest in data genius Chris McDowall’s fascinating series of interactive graphs charting the spread (and containment) of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris share Covid-19 prevention tips especially for apartment dwellers

New Zealander Paula Simpson writes from her home in India, where the government is attempting to put a staggering 1.3 billion people under lockdown.

A group of university students share advice for other students struggling to stay motivated and mentally healthy away from campus.

There’s a bitter dispute between now-shuttered Bauer Media and the government over whether Covid-19 really was the reason for the magazine giant’s closure.

Meanwhile Spinoff managing editor Duncan Greive looks at how the decision to classify magazines as ‘non-essential’ put Bauer in a near-impossible financial position

90-year-old author Renée writes a Lockdown Letter from her home on the Kāpiti Coast.

We talk to a New Zealand Indian man still struggling to come to terms with missing his father’s funeral back home – and with the travel agent who tried unsuccessfully to get him onto a flight

Keep going!