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Covid-19 live updates, March 27: PPE thefts reported from hospitals; prisoner refusing to be tested

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here.

New 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.

8.00pm: The day in sum

  • Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield announced 85 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the total to 368. One of the patients was on a ventilator in Nelson hospital’s intensive care unit, Bloomfield said this afternoon.
  • Civil Defence’s Sarah Stuart-Black said most of us were complying with the lockdown, but there were isolated reports of people flouting the rules.
  • Finance minister Grant Robertson announced a tightening of the wage subsidy scheme.
  • PPE shortages continued to cause concern, and the government continued to issue assurances that there was plenty to go around.
  • On The Spinoff, Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris explained how the Covid-19 lag works.
  • Also on The Spinoff, a supermarket checkout worker spoke to Leonie Hayden about life on the frontline.
  • And from his Kingsland bunker, Duncan Greive assessed the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealand’s already struggling media in a new episode of The Fold podcast.

6.30pm: Two prisoners in isolation, one refusing to be tested

Two inmates of Hawke’s Bay Regional prison are in isolation amid fears they may have contracted Covid-19, but one is refusing to be tested, reports RNZ. The two inmates had only recently arrived at the prison, Corrections national commissioner Rachel Leota said.

Meanwhile, five prisoners at Mt Eden prison in central Auckland had also been tested for coronavirus but the tests came back negative, reports RNZ. To prevent the virus spreading in prisons, all new inmates are being isolated for two weeks on arrival, and prison guards are wearing disposable gloves and masks. Private visits and all releases to work activities were stopped on March 24 and after the alert level four measures were announced, face-to-face visits by legal advisors were suspended.  Inmates can still get legal advice over the phone and were being given a $5 phone card each week until visits resume. Email is also being made more easily available, Corrections told RNZ.

5.30pm: Thefts of PPE from hospitals; $3.1 billion in wage subsidies now paid out

RNZ is reporting thefts of personal protective equipment (PPE) from hospitals around the country, which senior doctors saying is putting frontline workers at risk. One DHB has emailed staff to ask them not to take equipment home or hoard it for their personal use.

The head of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, Sarah Dalton, told RNZ they’ve had reports that some equipment is even being sold for profit. Dalton says it’s not just doctors and nurses who need protective equipment, but healthcare assistants, cleaners, and anyone coming into contact with patients in the hospital or in the community. The Ministry of Health says more than 640,000 masks were sent to DHBs yesterday.

Meanwhile, minister for social development Carmel Sepuloni has been on RNZ’s Checkpoint discussing the demand for wage subsidies. Sepuloni said there have now been around 270,000 applications, 120,000 of which have been paid – a total of $3.1 billion, up from the $2.7 billion figure finance minister Grant Robertson gave at 3pm. “The numbers are shifting all the time as we move forward,” said Sepuloni. 

She said in the past 24 hours, the wage subsidy phone line had received around 7000 phone calls, while the government emergency response line had received 31,000 calls. Yesterday, the Work and Income line received 45,500 calls. 

3.20pm: Robertson announces tougher employer rules for wage subsidy scheme

Finance minister Grant Robertson has announced a tightening of the wage subsidy scheme, which he says is currently operating as a “high trust” model. The major change is that employers will be required to keep employees on while they are in the scheme. Formerly, they were only required to make “best endeavours” to do so. He said this would take the potential cost of the scheme to between $8 billion and $12 billion, which will vary depending on how many businesses take it up. “It’s not a cap or a floor, it’s an estimate,” he said.

Robertson also reiterated his call for people to contact MSD if they knew of businesses not following the rules and gave an update on the total money paid out in the scheme – $2.7bn so far.

The finance minister was accompanied by prime minister Jacinda Ardern at today’s media briefing, Ardern was asked for her message to students of Marist College who are reportedly still socialising together, despite the cluster of Covid-19 cases from the school now numbering 16.

“They’re putting the health of all New Zealanders at risk and it must stop. I need everyone to take this seriously,” she said. “Young people may have greater resilience, but we need them to make sure they’re not a chain of transmission to more vulnerable people. If they spend time together, they’re putting at risk their grandparents.”

On being asked why the Imperial Tobacco cigarette factory in Petone was allowed to continue operating during the lockdown, Ardern said, “We haven’t gone into the specifics of every individual part of the supply chain for supermarkets. We shut down New Zealand in a 48-hour period so kept guidance simple – if you supply our supermarkets, those workplaces are allowed to continue to produce supplies.”

She began the briefing by announcing she and Robertson would be standing further apart from next week. While they are in each other’s “bubble” due to their necessarily close working relationship, their podiums would move the recommended two metres apart to model best practice.

2.45pm: Commercial landlords beg for government help

Won’t someone think of the landlords? That’s the plea from an organisation that represents many large commercial property investors and landlords, reports interest.co.nz. The Property Council says many businesses are simply refusing to pay rent and is calling on the government to help by introducing a targeted subsidy or other form of support. “There’s little point in having a tenant survive with the landlord foreclosed on and vice versa. We must work together to get through this period of unpredictability,” spokesperson Leonie Freeman said.

1.50pm: How the Covid-19 lag works

Here’s a brand new and very important piece from Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, which explains ‘the lag’. What’s that?

“The lag is what happens because it takes roughly two to 10 days for people who are exposed to the Covid-19 coronavirus to come down with symptoms. This is the disease’s incubation period. This means that the cases we are seeing confirmed now are a reflection of what happened two weeks ago. Hence the lag.”

1.05pm: 85 new cases of Covid-19, one patient in ICU

There are 76 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, and nine probable cases, according to the Ministry of Health’s Dr Ashley Bloomfield. The total combined number of confirmed and probable cases is now up to 368.

As has been the case for all other daily updates, the vast majority of new cases are related to international travel. Dr Bloomfield said there are no new clusters of cases being investigated.

Thirty-seven patients have now recovered, and eight are in hospital. Three of those are in Wellington, two are in Nelson, and there are one each in Waikato, Auckland and Whangārei. Six patients are in a stable condition, two in a less stable condition, and of those one is in intensive care.

The patient in the ICU is in Nelson hospital, where they have been for several days. However, their condition has deteriorated in the last 24 hours. They had “significant underlying health conditions”, and are the only Covid-19 patient in the country currently requiring a ventilator.

Bloomfield said the ministry was finalising and circulating updated advice on the appropriate use of PPE to health professionals and essential workers – “when they do and don’t need to use it to keep safe”. The advice will cover the use of masks and also hand hygiene measures and will be on the ministry website. He has also assured the health workforce that there are adequate supplies of PPE that have been stockpiled, “right across our system, just for this sort of situation”.

In the Ministry of Health’s national reserve and DHB stores there is a total of 1.9 million aprons and gowns, 2.7 million pairs of gloves, 60,000 sets of eye protection and 18 million masks.

“The ministry is currently exploring all existing and new avenues to maintain stock,” said Bloomfield, including working with the private sector. “All stones are being turned over to make sure we keep our stocks at the level needed to protect our healthcare workers and essential workers.”

Bloomfield said that more than 2500 retired and non-practising health professionals had responded to a callout for help during the pandemic. “From today, healthcare workers are able to register their availability on the Ministry of Health website and will be matched to roles,” he said, adding that currently that was mainly non-contact roles like manning phones at Healthline and contact tracing.

Testing capacity has also increased, and is now “on par with Germany’s on a per capita basis”, said Bloomfield. He was responding to a question about whether the testing criteria was still too restrictive.

Sarah Stuart-Black from Civil Defence reminded the public to stay home, saying there were isolated reports of congregations. She said those people were spoken to by police and provided with advice, and accepted that the restrictions were “dramatic” and a shift in how people live. She said the government is assisting with helping people through the process, but stressed that “adherence to them is critical.”

Stuart-Black was also asked for clarification on what the exact rules were for out of home activities and exercise. She implored the public to use their common sense and judgement, and to avoid activities with any associated risk. “Should I put myself in a position in which someone might have to rescue me?”

Sarah Stuart-Black said MBIE’s temporary accommodation service was up and running, and was working with other government agencies to provide temporary accommodation to those needing to self-isolate who can’t do so in their own homes.

She said the government would work with each individual to meet the cost of the accommodation. New Zealand citizens and residents on low incomes could contact Work and Income for support, while visitors were advised to contact their embassy or consulate.

12.50pm: What the wage subsidy could mean for you

Already over $1.5bn has paid out to New Zealand businesses and their employees under the government’s wage subsidy scheme. Michael Andrew takes a look at how it works and how to know if you’re eligible. Read the full article here.

12.15pm: Experts on Covid-19 and immunity

The incomparably excellent Science Media Centre has surveyed a range of experts on whether people will have immunity after catching and recovering from Covid-19. The short version of the answer is that nobody knows, but there are some crucial details in the longer version which are worth quoting in full. Here’s what two of their experts had to say:

Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris, vaccinologist, University of Auckland: 

“To know for sure that having COVID-19 makes people immune to getting reinfected we need to see if those who have recovered get it again. So far there is no good data that this happens, although there can also be exceptions.

“The general thinking is that protection for at least a few years is likely, based on what we know about other coronaviruses. With the common human coronaviruses that cause colds we know that people make immune responses and have antibodies, but after a few years they can get reinfected. We do not know if this is the case with SARS and MERS.”

Dr Nikki Moreland, Senior Lecturer in Immunology, University of Auckland:

“A lot of people are getting the virus and recovering, and when scientists have looked in their blood, they’ve seen traditional signs of a mature immune response – good levels of IgG antibodies, and evidence that immune cells have activated and responded to the virus. But there is still not enough research published for us to have a clear understanding idea of the immune response to COVID-19.

“In terms of ensuring that you’re going to have a robust immune response – a good healthy diet, getting rest, and generally looking after your body as best you can. All of these things help.”

11.45am: NZ Netball confirms indefinite suspensions, cancellations

A new announcement has been made about New Zealand’s top domestic netball competitions. The ANZ Premiership and all community netball has been suspended “for the foreseeable future,” and teams have ceased training as a group. As well as that, the development-oriented Beko Netball League has been outright cancelled for 2020. All ticket holders will be entitled to claim a refund.

11.20am: US stares down barrel of world’s worst outbreak

According to the New York Times, the US now has the largest number of Covid-19 cases out of all countries in the world, with more than 81,000. This comparison includes China, Italy, Spain, France, and Iran, which have to date all had more deadly outbreaks. However, the rapid rate by which the number of US cases is rising is fuelling fears that the death toll there will quickly overtake everywhere else too.

From the report, a major problem facing the US is that there has been absolutely no unified response from the various levels and layers of government, with entirely different tactics, policies and messages being sent.

11.10am: Attention parents: Anika Moa has done a live set of songs for bubbas on her Instagram

Every parent across the country is gasping for air right now – kids at home 24/7 is no joke. Screens are getting a massive workout, so being able to have them be put to wholesome use, and not unboxing/Minecraft commentary (both of which are basically fine, to be clear), is a huge bonus. Anika Moa has put in an early bid for New Zealander of the year by doing a live set on Instagram.

Put your kids in front of it, now. Click on her story (the profile pic) then click watch live video. And thank her later.

Thank you Anika

10.30am: Westpac estimates 200,000 jobs at risk

A sobering story from Tom Pullar-Strecker at Stuff, as the early blank shrugs of economists are beginning to pass. “Our early estimate is that about 200,000 jobs will be lost, which is about 7% of the workforce,” Westpac chief economist Dominic Stephens told Stuff. This is broadly in line with what Shamubeel Eaqub told The Spinoff earlier this week, when he called Covid-19 “the biggest economic shock since the great depression.”

Stephens said the country should brace itself for a 10% fall in GDP in the three months to June, “which is completely unprecedented in our lifetimes”. He also spoke to the Herald’s Liam Dann, endorsing our government’s stimulus approach, over Australia’s attempt to keep the economy partially open. This echoes a near-universal sentiment amongst business leaders, that despite the pain of total lockdown, a short, sharp shock is the best of a bunch of bad options.

9am: ‘Like a nuclear bomb’: A money manager on handling your Kiwisaver during Covid-19

Jihee Junn talks to a Kiwisaver money manager about what it’s like piloting your savings through this once-in-a-lifetime market storm.

“There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of fear, and it’s not that we don’t share [that feeling] – it’s just that we’re trying to do everything we possibly can for our investors which includes those with our KiwiSaver. Like when we walked in on Monday [9 March], it was like a nuclear bomb had gone off in the oil markets because of the tension between the Russians and Saudis. We had no idea that was going to happen until over the weekend so we had to adjust our thinking and think about what was going to happen to the stock market next.”

Read the full story on The Spinoff here

8.45am: How to see your GP during lockdown

Toby Hills, a Porirua-based GP, has written an excellent piece about life for GPs during the pandemic, and what us as patients can do to make the system work.

“Even during a pandemic, humans still get sick for other reasons. Appendixes still try to burst. People grow understandably depressed and anxious. Mysterious scaly rashes still appear on our earlobes and eventually vanish for no reason at all. Kidneys still get cancer, brains still get Alzheimer’s and the colon still gets threadworms. Nobody should really get chlamydia during a nationwide lockdown, but some will probably still get chlamydia.

Chlamydia finds a way.

The trouble is that community medical centres are where the most vulnerable in society gather. Co-workers with serious heart and lung diseases. Friends with diabetes or frail immune systems. Precious kaumātua and kuia and other elderly relatives. Catching Covid-19, for the 10% of the population in these vulnerable categories, could be catastrophic. In New Zealand we know that this 10 percent is disproportionately composed of Māori and Pasifika people who are unfairly disadvantaged in the health system already. Aotearoa has a duty to protect our vulnerable people.”

Read the rest of the story on The Spinoff

8.30am: Unions concerned about protective equipment shortage

The amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) available to medical workers is significantly lower than government has suggested, according to medical professionals and suppliers. An RNZ story outlines a severe lack of medical gowns due to an increase in demand and disrupted supply from factories in China. Normal demand for medical gowns was 1000 cartons a week, one supplier told RNZ, but since Monday medical staff have already gone through five times that.

Yesterday director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said there was plenty of PPE and the government had been working on making sure that supply route was “rock-solid”. But unions have expressed concerns about the supply and distribution of the PPE, demanding that DHBs release clear guidelines on who should be wearing PPE and when.

Jeremy Anderson from Amtech, a medical supply company, said that more supply was on its way. “We should have our first large consignment landing this time next week,” he told Morning Report.”I’m not quite sure [of the volume of PPE] but they are coming in from China.”

Amtech are also working on some of the other essential supplies for hospitals.

“I’m working with four or five New Zealand companies at the moment to put forward a proposal today to the ministry of health on emergency beds,” he said. “We’ve got a team just about ready to start making emergency ICU beds. We think we can have 300-500 emergency ICU beds made per week, by the end of next week. That proposal is going to the ministry today.” The beds will not include ventilators, which will need to be sourced elsewhere.

7.55am: Rob Fyfe discusses leading the private sector crisis response

While last week saw a number of our most-prominent entrepreneurs straying into epidemiology, now they’re in their lane and picking up pace. Former Air NZ CEO Rob Fyfe has been tasked with marshalling the private sector to aid the government in its response to the Covid-19 crisis, with one of the first fruits being Zuru Toys co-founder Nick Mowbray liaising with The Warehouse Group to get 5,000 much-needed masks to New Zealand for medical use. Fyfe was interviewed by Duncan Garner on the AM Show on Three this morning, and said his role was still taking shape. “I’m trying to figure that out at the moment,” he said, after being overwhelmed by “hundreds and hundreds” of offers of support from private businesses around the country.

He singled out a team in Christchurch working on manufacturing the ventilators which are so crucial to the survival of patients most-affected by the virus, and said he had been “inundated with people offering testing capacity”. 

When Garner asked him about the economic impact, he essentially dismissed the question, making it clear that economy would flow out of the public health response. “To be brutally honest, my sole focus now is what we can do to help the government stop this virus in its tracks,” said Fyfe. “That will give the country the best opportunity to recover. Once we’ve achieved that outcome, then we can draw ourselves out of this lockdown phase and power this country up again.”

“It will be a different economy,” he added, saying that some industries might take years to recover, and other new ones emerge.

7.25am: From today’s Bulletin – clusters starting to emerge

From our daily news digest The Bulletin – the most important stories from across the NZ media, hitting inboxes at 7am. Head here to subscribe.

As the number of cases of Covid-19 rises into the hundreds, clusters are starting to emerge. There are now 283 cases, with seven people in hospital, all in a stable condition. Mercifully, New Zealand is yet to see a single death from Covid-19, though the biggest wave is still to come.

To be clear – the vast majority of cases in New Zealand are still connected to international travel. But the number of cases that don’t necessarily have a link to international travel is starting to creep up, and is likely to continue doing so for weeks. Even with the strict border measures and a society-wide lockdown in place, the long lag time between infections occurring and symptoms appearing means that a lot more cases are likely to emerge in the next several weeks. As Dr Ashley Bloomfield from the Ministry of Health put it, “it’s hard to predict but, yes, it may get up into the thousands. The key thing here is that we want the turnaround point to be as soon as possible. That could be around 10 days’ time if we are doing what we need to do now.”

Of those clusters, one is centred around Marist College in Auckland. Marist College Board Chair Stephen Dallow spoke to Checkpoint last night, describing the fear and worry in the school’s community, and the process being undertaken by the Ministry to trace all close contacts. It’s not really clear to him where the first case came from, because there wasn’t necessarily any overseas link. That’s basically what community transmission means, and the big fear is that we’re about to see a spike of such cases. There are also cases in two rest homes – full details can be found in yesterday’s live updates. The existence of community transmission doesn’t necessarily mean it has got out of control – this Newsroom report from the start of the week quotes experts who said (before the level four move was announced) that aggressive measures could contain any community outbreaks.

But because of all that, it’s very important that everyone does their bit on the rules. If you need a refresher on them, please do read this piece explaining bubbles by Alice Webb-Liddall. The people you started the lockdown with – they’re the people that you’re going to be spending the whole lockdown with, and nobody else. Act like you’ve already got the virus – if you like someone enough to break the rules to spend time with them, why would you risk passing it on to them.

Statistical modelling has suggested what the outcomes might have been had New Zealand not gone into a shutdown to fight Covid-19. Writing on The Spinoff, Auckland University’s Shaun Hendy explained the research, which showed that if no action to stop Covid-19 was taken, the health system quickly would have become overwhelmed, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. We won’t know for a while if the approach taken will prevent such a tragic outcome, but so far there is a small amount of evidence of Italy’s lockdown contributing to a slight slowing in new cases – though that itself came long after it got out of control.

A strange situation for one of our national obsessions, but the property market has effectively stopped for now. Interest’s Greg Ninness has reported on what will be the last live auction in Auckland for a long while, in which almost nobody turned up, and nothing was sold. What happens next for the property market, which was looking in danger of overheating all over again before this all started, is a real mystery. Will it crash if the wider economy enters a recession? Or will it rise as wealthy investors look for a safe place to park money? Time will tell.

I’m sharing this story because there’s been a fair bit of consternation online around it, and aspects are worth elaborating on. Thomas Manch has reported for Stuff that during the lockdown period, police have the power to enter private homes without a warrant if they suspect a gathering is going on. That comes under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act, which has been invoked under the declaration of a State of National Emergency. So it is a temporary power that they hold – but for those who are concerned, it’s definitely easy to see why you’d push back very strongly against any attempt to entrench such powers.

Do we have the medical supplies for a large scale outbreak? Radio NZ reported in their news bulletins this morning that a major supplier of gowns has sounded the alarm that an order of half a million may not be delivered, because they can’t find a factory to make them, and there won’t be a plane to fly them in. Dr Bloomfield said yesterday that “we have really good supply of PPE and we are working hard over today to make sure it is out with everybody who needs it in whatever clinical situation they are in.” PPE, for those who haven’t seen the term before, means personal protective equipment.

7.15am: A revealing interview with a supermarket checkout operator

Ātea editor and The Spinoff senior writer Leonie Hayden spoke to Rosie (not her real name, to allow her to speak frankly about management and customers), about life on the new frontlines. It’s an excellent, and very moving, interview.

I suspect that a lot of customers haven’t given much consideration to supermarket workers lately. Have you found that in the last couple of weeks?

We didn’t see the first rush coming. People just filling their trollies with everything. We were running out, so they started getting shitty. We just couldn’t plan for that, for selling six days worth of one item in a day, or six months worth in a week. Like the toilet paper! [laughs]

The great toilet paper depression!

For a whole week every single person was buying toilet paper. And then what would happen, when the staff finished work and they went to get their shopping, there was nothing for them to buy.

And yeah we have had some nasty customers. They get quite angry because we don’t have flour and that sort of stuff. I had a customer the other day, she buys online and it was like she had to slum it because she had to come and do her own groceries.

Oh no.

In our store we put limits on things, trying to be fair to everybody, and I had one person saying, if you don’t allow me to have this then my husband’s going to starve to death cos that’s all he eats. It’s on your head if he dies cos you won’t let me have four yoghurts! That type of thing [chuckles].

Read the rest of the story on The Spinoff

7am: Staggering 3.2m claim US unemployment in a single week

Two enormous economic data points emerged from the US overnight. Firstly, that an unimaginably vast stimulus package has passed the Senate, with $2tn allowing for cash payments directly into the bank accounts of American adults, with more for those with dependent children, and, for the first time, support for freelancers and those in the gig economy. Secondly, that unemployment applications for last week were over 3m. To put that in context, in the half century-long record of such claims, the previous high was 685,000, in 1982. The worst of the GFC never got close, nor the ’70s oil embargo, Black Monday or the ’97 Asian crisis. To put it another way: around one in 50 working Americans lost their jobs – in a single week. Even as the stimulus bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, House speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged more would almost certainly be needed.

This is because the virus is rampant in the US, and the response is piecemeal at best. The federal government has only issued relatively light-handed recommendations, and conditions vary from town to city to state, with few domestic travel restrictions in place. Johns Hopkins’ tally has 69,684 infected, while the NY Times reports the death toll as surpassing 1,000 for the first time. The country will likely overtake China and Italy to become the single-largest source of infections by the week’s end.

In a sign of just how far the pendulum has swung, China – the epicentre until a month ago – is now largely free of new infections, and is taking the extraordinary step of closing its borders to even those foreign nationals who have residency. The ‘world’s factory’ is continuing to make things, but is essentially shut to visitors, with its civil aviation administration issuing a stark new directive “each Chinese airline is only allowed to maintain one route to any specific country with no more than one flight per week; each foreign airline is only allowed to maintain one route to China with no more than one weekly flight.” The rest of the world is the danger, they’re determined to keep it out.

Around the world, the total number of infections has passed 500,000. The UK is using drones and roadblocks to enforce its lockdown, while passing an enormous stimulus, including up to £2,500 a month to the self-employed. Spain has seen a slowdown in deaths for the first time in a week, a ray of hope in a battered country, after yesterday surpassing China’s death toll. France is using a high speed train to move those in the hard-hit Alsace to areas with greater hospital capacity. And in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro remains one of the last major global leaders to dismiss Covid-19 as media hysteria. There the virus has claimed 59 lives, with more than 2,500 infections.

6.20am: Yesterday in NZ

Highlights from yesterday’s live updates – read the full day here

  • We all got through day one of lockdown. Phew.
  • Finance minister Grant Robertson said that as of 9am this morning, a total of $1.5bn had been paid out under the under wage subsidy scheme to 244,887 workers.
  • The government announced community groups and other organisations that provide essential support services will receive an immediate $27m cash injection to help them stay afloat.
  • Police commissioner Mike Bush said 360 people had come through Auckland Airport this morning, with 168 of them sent to quarantine (eight because they were showing symptoms, 160 because they had no self-isolation plans).
  • Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, announced 78 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, with 73 positive tests and five probable cases. It brings the total to 283 cases.
  • The man accused of the Christchurch mosque attacks has pleaded guilty.
  • MediaWorks announced production on all its local entertainment shows is halted, meaning Dancing with the Stars NZ will not air in April as planned, and The Block NZ is on hold.

 



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