Live updates, August 25: Seven new Covid cases; targeted testing plan launched

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for August 25, bringing you the latest on New Zealand news and Covid-19 as it returns to the community. Auckland is now in alert level three and the rest of NZ is in level two. More details here. Official information here. Get me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

7.00pm: The day in sum

There were seven new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, all linked to the Auckland community cluster.

Jacinda Ardern defended extending the level three restrictions in Auckland, saying the tail of the community cluster will be long.

National Party leader Judith Collins called for the wage subsidy to be extended until the end of the weekend.

The health minister wants 70,000 people tested for the virus this week as part of an “aggressively targeted” approach.

Accommodation for certain patients in two mental health units breached a UN convention on torture and degrading treatment, according to the chief ombudsman.

A $65,000 donation was given to Jami-Lee Ross’ Advance NZ party by its own co-leader, Billy Te Kahika.

Jetstar won’t be operating in New Zealand until at least September 6 due to the level two restrictions, the airline announced.

The Entertainment Venues Association warned that venues will close as a result of ongoing mass gathering restrictions and the changing of alert levels.

5.55pm: Auckland’s ‘yellow flag’ Covid case that has contact tracers stumped

A man in his 30s turned up at hospital on Friday with symptoms. He’s now in ICU, and still nobody knows how he contracted the virus, writes political editor Justin Giovannetti on The Spinoff.

Amid the daily rush of numbers as Auckland’s tally of active Covid-19 tops 110, one new infection has given Ashley Bloomfield particular pause for concern. It’s another indication that the growing cluster in New Zealand’s largest city still hasn’t been fully contained.

Read the full story here

5.25pm: TVNZ posts $25.8m loss

TVNZ has reported a $25.8 million net loss for the year to June 30, its first annual loss since 2010, reports the NZ Herald. While Covid-19 and the forced relocation of the TVNZ HQ following the SkyCity convention centre fire were factors, the bulk of the loss is due to TVNZ’s recent company-wide restructure to focus on more online content and more local content. CEO Kevin Kenrick had last year predicted a significant loss for the 2020 financial year, though his prediction of $17.1m is around $8.5m less than the eventual result.

4.30pm: Mental health units in breach of UN torture convention

Two mental health units are of a standard that breaches the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, according to reports issued today by the Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier. The two units are Te Whare o Matairangi Mental Health Inpatient Unit at Wellington Hospital and the Waiatarau Mental Health Inpatient Unit at Waitakere Hospital, Auckland.

Wellington Hospital’s Te Whare o Matairangi unit has continued to use seclusion rooms as bedrooms when the unit was over capacity, despite the ombudsman warning against the practice three years ago.

“These rooms contain little more than a mattress, and are supposed to be used as a short-term measure for patients who are assessed as an imminent safety risk,” said Boshier today, adding that using seclusion rooms for no reason other than a shortage of accommodation has the potential for significant physical and psychological harm.

The Waiatarau Mental Health Inpatient Unit at Waitakere Hospital was using its intensive care unit (ICU) as long-term accommodation for a patient, in what amounted to cruel or inhuman treatment under the UN convention. Being contained in the ICU for an extended period was causing the patient “an escalating sense of hopelessness, frustration and anger”, Boshier said.

A total of five secure acute mental health units were inspected, and the reports found a number of common issues including overcrowding, unduly restrictive practices, low staffing levels, and lack of privacy for patients using the toilet.

However, relationships between staff and residents were on the whole positive, and patients generally had good access to activities and health care services. Most of the units also encouraged visits from whānau, which is an important aspect of treatment and recovery, Boshier said.

3.25pm: Seymour criticises effectiveness of Covid app

The leader of the Act Party has criticised the government’s Covid-19 tracer app, after the minister of health was unable to say whether any contacts had been traced through it.

“Today in parliament I asked the health minister how many people had been traced with the app and he was unable to answer the question saying Public Health Units don’t record how they have identified close contacts,” David Seymour said.

“It’s deeply concerning that we have no measurement of the effectiveness of the app in finding close contacts.”

Chris Hipkins told media today that more than 1.8 million people have now registered on the Covid Tracer app – representing nearly 45% of the population 15 and over.

Seymour, however, said the government has been a “failure” at contact tracing – and claimed only “a few percent” of people are using the app.

“The Minister of Health is unable to say whether any contacts have been traced though the Government’s Covid-19 app – proving what a failure the Government has been at contact tracing”, Seymour said.

“Contact tracing should have been the Government’s top priority since the nationwide lockdown ended. Instead it spent more than 100 days doing victory laps. Businesses were only required to have QR codes last week.”

3.05pm: Another 148 Covid cases in Victoria

The Covid-19 outbreak in Australia’s Victoria shows no signs of slowing down, with 148 new cases recorded today. Eight more people have also died, the state’s health department has announced.

In total, 438 people have died from the coronavirus in Victoria alone. Yesterday, there were 116 new cases – the state’s lowest in more than seven weeks.

2.00pm: Sentencing of Christchurch gunman continues

It’s day two of the sentencing of the man accused of slaying 51 worshippers in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. It’s expected the sentencing, in the Christchurch High Court, will continue until at least Thursday.

As Newshub reports, Muslim victims have spoken of their community’s strength and resilience in the face of the attacks. One noted that the convicted Australian national had been greeted with “Hello, brother” by a worshipper as he entered the Al Noor Mosque.

Another woman told the court: “[The gunman] thinks he has broken us, shattered us, weakened us. Little does he know. He has made us proud and fearless”.

The Herald has reported on the story of Sanjeda Neha, whose husband was killed on March 15 just a few months before the birth of his first child. She told the court: “there are two things I am feeling when I look at our baby emotionally. I feel like crying, I ask why has Allah taken him away – what sin have I committed that we have been punished for”.

1.00pm: Seven new cases of Covid-19; aim to test 70,000 people in one week

Updated

There are seven new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, all linked to the Auckland community cluster. Two are linked to a church and two are household contacts, Ashley Bloomfield said. It’s not yet clear what the link with the remaining three cases is.

New Zealand now has 1,339 confirmed cases of the virus. One previously reported case is now considered recovered, so the total number of active cases is 129 – 19 of which are imported. The origin of the cluster has still not been confirmed. Bloomfield said ESR continues to test further samples from earlier cases in managed isolation facilities. “My hope is that one of those will give us an idea of just how this expression of the virus got into the community.”

Eight people are currently receiving hospital care. Two in Auckland City Hospital, two are in North Shore Hospital (one in ICU), four are in Middlemore Hospital, two of whom are in critical condition in ICU. . One person who was in Auckland City Hospital has been discharged to the Jet Park. One person remains in Waikato Hospital, but not as a direct result of Covid-19, said Bloomfield.

Genome sequencing has confirmed the person in ICU at North Shore is linked to the community cluster, but it’s still not clear how this person was infected, said Bloomfield.

160 people have been moved into the Jet Park quarantine facility, comprising 89 people who have tested positive plus household contacts.

Aim to test 70,000 people over next week

Health minister Chris Hipkins has thanked the ongoing work of health workers for the number of tests they have delivered since Covid-19 re-emerged. More than 100,000 Aucklanders have received tests for Covid-19 since the level three lockdown first came into effect, just under two weeks ago.

Yesterday, 4,434 tests were processed, bringing the total to date to 701,504. More than 1.8 million people have now registered on the Covid Tracer app, nearly 45% of the population 15 and over.

Today, Hipkins has announced plans to ramp up the number of tests being given even further: aiming for 70,000 tests over the next week. That includes testing of asymptomatic people in targeted groups, alongside other tests like those for symptomatic people, border workers, and returnees. Hipkins said the government is shifting “to a more aggressively targeted approach”.

The aim is 7,000 tests a day in Auckland and 3,000 in the rest of the country, comprising 70% of all tests. There will be a specific testing focus on the South Auckland community, Hipkins said. Regional DHBs will deploy at least six additional mobile testing units and pop-ups. They’ll be active for two to three days at a time, then will move to another area, Hipkins said, and will focus on improving access for Māori and Pasifika communities. Locations for these include Ranui, Glen Innes and Manurewa.

Hipkins said there were signs of testing fatigue among the public. “Please don’t relax now – we need to continue our testing effort and we need the cooperation of all New Zealanders in that process.”

On Thursday, Hipkins will set out how the mandated masks on public transport rules will work, he said. At this stage, there are no plans for masks to be mandated at schools. Hipkins said advice could change, but at this stage there appears to be no reason to enforce mask use on school grounds.

At this stage, Hipkins said no businesses have been penalised for not displaying a QR code, as is now mandated. He said the government wants to take an “encouraging” approach with people and work constructively with businesses to understand why they are not displaying a code.

Peters agrees with National, calls for return of health select committee

In a rare moment of unity, New Zealand First has admitted it agrees with the National Party. Winston Peters has announced that the New Zealand First caucus agrees with the request of Dr Shane Reti to reconvene the health select committee in light of the government’s alert level decision yesterday.

“The decision to delay the general election and reconvene the house reinforces this government’s commitment to the crucial role parliament plays in holding the executive to account,” Peters said.

“It is therefore logical for the health select committee to meet to canvass the advice of the director general of health and other senior officials pertaining to the alert level decisions taken by cabinet on August 24.

“Given the economic and health consequences of the cabinet’s decision it is appropriate for the accountability function to be performed while parliament is sitting,” Peters said.

Chris Hipkins told media today there has been no discussions so far about the return of the select committee, saying it’s “ultimately a matter for the select committee to decide”.

12.45pm: Watch – Bloomfield to update on new Covid-19 cases

The director general of health Ashley Bloomfield will be providing today’s 1pm media briefing on new Covid-19 cases. He’ll be joined by the health minister Chris Hipkins.

Currently, there are 123 active cases of the virus in New Zealand, with nine new cases announced yesterday. The Auckland community cluster has now grown to be the largest since the virus first arrived on our shores, with 101 confirmed cases.

Watch below:

12.10pm: Hong Kong man first to be infected with Covid twice

A man in Hong Kong has become the first confirmed case to have been infected with Covid-19 for a second time. Genome sequencing revealed both of the man’s infections were from different strains of the virus. However, he did not experience symptoms with his second case.

Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland, said while the case is of “scientific interest” it is important “not to assume at this point that rapid waning immunity is a frequent occurrence across populations”.

“For any infectious disease there is the potential to get it a second time, and this is more common for some infectious diseases than others,” she said.

“We know that repeat infections occur with other coronaviruses, influenza viruses and other common respiratory illnesses. The duration of immunity following the first infection varies both with the type of organism and the immune response from the person infected.

“But there are also important factors relating to the individual exposed. For example, people who are on medications that may affect their immune response, or have certain medical conditions that affect their immune response, may have a shorter duration of protection than others.”

10.15am: Judith Collins wants wage subsidy extended until Sunday

Updated

National Party leader Judith Collins has called for the wage subsidy to be extended until the end of the weekend, in line with the ongoing level three lockdown restrictions in Auckland.

Collins is giving a press conference this morning, joined by her health spokesperson Shane Reti and finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith.

“It would be a much better move to extend the wage subsidy for those four days [until the weekend],” she said.

There was a rare moment of agreement between National and the government, with Collins calling the decision to make masks mandatory on public transport a “no brainer”. When asked about whether mask usage should be made mandatory in restaurants and bars, Collins said it would be “difficult to eat with a mask on”. Reti said he will be following the advice of health experts closely.

Reti said the issue of masks being worn at schools is complex, citing the inequity between those who can and cannot afford them. However, he said there “is a trend toward people wearing masks in more situations”.

Collins continued to claim that the border was the source of the Auckland outbreak, blaming a lack of testing. She wouldn’t promise that a National government could keep Covid-19 out of the country, but said it would be isolated very quickly if it did return.

Asked about whether or not the South Island should be allowed to drop into alert level one earlier, Collins said she wouldn’t “second guess” the advice given to the prime minister. However, she said Reti has not been properly briefed by health minister Chris Hipkins and the government should publicly release the health advice they used to make the decision about Auckland staying in lockdown.

9.40am: NZME’s revenue drops, despite wage subsidy

NZME (owners of the Herald and Newstalk ZB) are celebrating pre-tax earnings of $28.9 million – which includes more than $8 million from the government’s wage subsidy scheme. That’s a 5% increase on the same period last year.

The company also reported a 13% drop in operating revenue, down to $157.8 million for the half year, due to the impacts of Covid-19.

NZ Herald Premium digital subscriptions total more than 82,000, including 43,000 paid digital subscribers, the company said.

8.50am: ‘Venues will close’ – message from entertainment sector

A warning from the Entertainment Venues Association: venues will close as a result of ongoing mass gathering restrictions and the changing of alert levels.

The association represents more than 120 venues nationwide, including theatres, arenas and sports grounds.

Trusts Arena CEO Mark Gosling said while the association agreed with the Covid-19 elimination strategy, “we cannot support endless changing of gathering number restrictions. We don’t agree that larger events can’t go ahead safely under Level 2”.

“We don’t believe social distancing rules should be the new normal in theatres, venues and at events. We don’t want our future to be empty rugby stadia and online performance. So we have to find other ways of keeping events running and our venues open,” Gosling said.

Gosling is calling for a range of “Covid-safe” rules to be applied in theatre and venue settings, in place of social distancing requirements.

“Compulsory masks are great, temperature checks on arrival are fine, new ways of ticketing people to stop human-to-human contact are fine, but we cannot keep postponing and cancelling events, tours and performances without more financial support for the sector.

“When considering the proposed Level 1.5, and even Auckland’s new “2.5”, the Government needs to think very seriously about limiting gathering numbers in venues, stadia and performance settings. Even better, include the industry in those discussions,” Gosling said.

8.40am: Jetstar suspends NZ flights until September 6

Jetstar won’t be operating in New Zealand until at least September 6 – the day our Covid-19 alert levels will be reviewed by the government.

The airline said it cannot operate in New Zealand while there is a requirement to keep the middle seat free, as there is at alert level two.

“The limitations on the number of customers that are allowed on board our aircraft make the operations of our flights unviable,” Jetstar said.

Customers will be able to reschedule their flight or receive a credit voucher.

8.10am: $65k donation for Jami-Lee Ross’ Advance NZ party

A $65,000 donation has been given to Jami-Lee Ross’ Advance NZ party by its own co-leader, according to the Electoral Commission.

The money has come from a newly set up business in the name of Public Party leader Billy Te Kahika. The donation is second only in size to a $100,000 Act Party donation, from Dame Jenny Gibbs, the Herald reports.

According to the Electoral Commission, the donation was given to the Advance NZ party by the Public Party through a company called Rubicon Crossing 2020. That company was registered by Michael Stace – the Public Party’s campaign director – who owns half of the company, along with Te Kahika.

7.45am: Ardern defends extended level three in Auckland

The prime minister said we will continue to see cases of Covid-19 linked to the Auckland cluster, despite the city lifting its level three restrictions at the end of the weekend.

Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that the entire country will be in alert level two next week, but with tight mass gathering restrictions still in force in Auckland. On TVNZ’s Breakfast, Ardern said the tail of the existing cluster will be long: “We are expecting we will keep getting cases”.

The decision to stay in lockdown for a few extra days, rather than coming out on Wednesday night as initially planned, came down to the health advice from the director general of health Ashley Bloomfield, Ardern said. It was about “being in front of the virus”, she said.

On Newstalk ZB, Ardern rejected a claim that the decision to stay in lockdown longer was a political one: “It’s all on Covid”, she said. “When I look around the world, every other country is having similar experiences, battling Covid or dealing with a resurgence. We are not alone in that.”

She said the independent health advice was comprehensive. “We have the job of making sure we constantly weigh up the economic impact. Our view is a strong scientific, health view is the best way to support our economy.”

When pressed on whether the Auckland cluster was caused by a leak at the border, Ardern said she wouldn’t make that assumption yet.

“We have tested almost all our border workers and have not found it. We have tested our quarantine workers and have not found it. We have even done the genome sequencing of people who have been positive in our facilities and as yet have not been able to match it to what we have seen in this cluster. We have tested at our ports and not been able to find it.”

Ardern told RNZ that if a new cluster broke out or if there was concern around an unlinked case, it’s possible we could shift back into level three or above. Despite masks being compulsory on public transport from Monday, Ardern said they won’t be a requirement in bars and restaurants: “we’ve got quite comprehensive precautions in place for hospitality”. That goes against the health advice of Otago University’s Nick Wilson, who told RNZ the government is pulling its punches on its masking policy.

7.35am: Top stories from The Bulletin

The current alert levels will remain for another week at least, and even after that, things won’t quite go back to how they were before. First of all – the top lines of the announcement from our live updates page: Auckland is staying in alert level three until the end of the weekend – 11.59pm this Sunday – with restrictions on mass gatherings to continue after the move down to level two. The rest of the country will stay in level two until the end of the week at least, and likely beyond. Part of the reason for that is a fear that if Aucklanders were suddenly released into a country with widespread mass gatherings at level one, new clusters could develop. The new alert levels will be reviewed again on September 6, a Sunday.

The gathering rules in Auckland are aimed at preventing new outbreaks with the move down to level two. They will be set at 10 people, with exceptions for funerals and tangihanga. Schools will be allowed to reopen, along with many businesses. The gathering rules will not apply to hospitality as such – a venue would be allowed to have more than 10 people inside at any given time, but socially distanced into groups no larger than 10 people.

The biggest change is the mandating of mask-wearing on public transport, to begin on Monday next week, and to apply at level two or higher. That will include ride-shares, taxis and planes too. One of the cases of community transmission announced yesterday came from an Auckland bus, so it is actually quite possible this will have an effect on preventing the spread of outbreaks. While mask-wearing is definitely a useful tool, there could be some problems with enforcing it, because of the availability and cost of masks. As Newshub reports, there have been hundreds of complaints about price gouging or unfair prices, with demand shooting up. Anecdotally, many stockists and makers are also struggling to fill orders for masks right now. An important point was made by the University of Otago’s Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, who said:

“As described by the Prime Minister this afternoon, the new measures place a heavy reliance on individuals to own and carry a mask. There will be practical and cost barriers for many. At all times during Alert Level 2, masks need to be made freely available on public transport to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged.” 

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here 

7.30am: Yesterday’s top stories

Auckland will stay in alert level three until the end of the weekend – 11.59pm this Sunday. The supercity will then shift into alert level two, but restrictions on mass gatherings will remain.

The rest of the country will remain in alert level two until at least the end of next week.

Face coverings will be mandatory from next week on all public transport, planes and rideshare services from level two up.

Nine new cases of Covid-19 were announced. Eight are linked to existing Auckland cluster and one is an imported case from overseas.

Sentencing for the Christcurch mosque shooter has begun. A summary of facts was heard for the first time in court as well as a number of victim impact statements.

Retail sales fell an historic 15% in the June 2020 quarter, making it the biggest drop on record.

The “Make it 16″ campaign was in the High Court arguing that the current voting age of 18 is unjustified age discrimination and a breach of human rights.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates.




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