Jacinda Ardern gives a post-cabinet media briefing on March 31

Covid-19 live updates, March 31: Easter trading hours announced; some community newspapers allowed to publish

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.

6.15pm: Matamata cluster a sobering reminder of why bars had to shut

The seriousness of the Matamata cluster, which stems predominantly from a St Patrick’s day party at Redoubt Bar a fortnight ago, is underscored by the latest numbers released by the Ministry of Health which show the number of cases increasing by 11 to 23 overnight.

On March 29 there were only 9 confirmed cases in Matamata.

Source: Ministry of Health, March 31. * Decrease in case count is due to probable case being downgraded to suspect.

5.55pm: A second Queenstown nurse tests positive

A second nurse at Lakes District Hospital in Queenstown has tested positive for the virus, Southern DHB has confirmed .

The nurse was one of 15 close contacts of the first nurse whose positive test result was confirmed yesterday. 38 more staff will now go into isolation as a result.

Lakes District Hospital has treated two Covid-19 cases however the first nurse to test positive did not provide care for either of the patients, and the hospital is still investigating the source of transmission

5.08pm: Man claiming to have Covid-19 spits on police officers

Three police officers have been put into isolation after a man claiming to have Covid-19 spat at them, reports RNZ.

The 30-year-old man was arrested after police were called to a family harm incident. He kicked and spat at officers while being placed in a patrol car.

The man has been tested and police are still awaiting his results. Superintendent Naila Hassan told RNZ that if the man is proven to have Covid-19 and to have infected the officers, he could face a charge of ‘infecting with disease’, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

4.45pm: On The Spinoff today

4.20pm: Manufacturers pledge to do their bit

A register has been established by ManufacturingNZ to help identify businesses that can assist in manufacturing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The register already includes more than 70 businesses but ManufacturingNZ Executive Director Catherine Beard says: “The Government was keen to get better visibility of what manufacturing capability we have in New Zealand to produce PPE, so we’ve provided this clear list that includes contact details for each business.”

The launch comes in the wake of frontline health workers’ concerns that there isn’t enough PPE available or that it’s not being distributed effectively. Manufacturers can text ‘PPE’ to 313 to get the link to register or the list can be found here.

4.00pm: Lees-Galloway on Easter hours

A release from the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Iain Lees-Galloway, further clarifying the government’s announcement around Easter trading hours, says that supermarkets, unions and community agencies were consulted before a decision was made.

Supermarkets will close on Good Friday but will open on Easter Sunday. Employees have the right to refuse to work on the Friday.

“Supermarkets will be able to open on Easter Sunday during our COVID-19 lockdown in order to ensure we are able to buy essential food, drink and household goods. The Government recognises that communities are concerned about getting essential items and there are few alternatives to supermarkets at this time,” says Lees-Galloway,

There’s no change to the law, supermarkets are permitted to open under under the existing provisions of the Shop Trading Hours Act 1990. The exemption that means some dairies and petrol stations are open on Easter holidays will now apply to supermarkets, provided they sell “nothing that is not food, drink, a household item, a personal item” and in quantities no greater than what is needed by people in the area.

3.30pm: Wage subsidies to date

As of this morning, $4.1 billlion has been paid out in wage subsidies to New Zealanders. 642,000 people have benefitted from the subsidy, 104,170 of whom are self-employed.

It was announced last night that the Australian government would now allow New Zealanders living in Australia to access a “job keeper” wage subsidy, worth $1530 (AU$1500) a fortnight. The prime minister clarified in her media briefing today that the Australian government won’t be paying out those subsidies until May.

This is a rare concession, facilitated no doubt by Ardern placing continued pressure on Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to assist New Zealanders facing job and income losses. While Australians living in New Zealand are eligible for government welfare after living here for two years, New Zealanders over the pond have limited access to assistance from the Australian welfare system.

3.10pm: PM announces Easter trading hours; some community newspapers allowed to publish

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced supermarkets will be closed as usual on Good Friday but will be able to open on Easter Sunday.

Ardern acknowledged the religious significance of Easter Sunday for many New Zealanders and said there was a “range of views” from ministers on the decision.

“Our decision was driven by the desire to strike a balance in the need for the workforce in our supermarkets to get a well earned break, and for supermarkets to restock.”

Ardern added that given Good Friday is usually a holiday, employees have the right to not work that day.

Addressing the March 28 decision to close non-daily newspapers and magazines, which are considered non-essential media, the prime minister has said this can be reevaluated for a “very limited number of publications” in isolated areas that could prove they had appropriate health and safety measures in place. Some non-English publications may also be considered.

She rejected the suggestion that preventing some media from publishing was in breach of freedom of speech, saying the government recognised the crucial role media played. “It’s important right now that people have as much access to news as possible.”

She said providing content online was preferable, “but we do realise there are remote communities and non-English language communities who may not be accessing information through other channels”.

Ardern acknowledged the financial impacts of Covid-19 on media companies, saying, “We continue to work with all businesses to cushion the blow and protect the jobs of all New Zealanders.”

In response to a question about whether she had been in contact with New Zealand’s major media companies to offer support, Ardern said, “Not me personally, but the wage subsidy is available, and Kris Faafoi I imagine will be in contact.
“We recognise the critical role media is playing – that’s why it was declared an essential service right from the beginning.”

On the findings of the government’s technical advisory group, the prime minister and director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield have recommended broadening the case definition for testing.

“This will include people with Covid-19 symptoms, but not necessarily a history of travel or exposure to another case.”

Healthline, general clinics and community clinics where testing is taking place will be sent the new testing criteria immediately.

2.15pm: ‘Our aim is to eliminate’ – Bloomfield says testing criteria likely to change

Taking questions from the media, Ashley Bloomfield said new modelling based on the current measures was under way. “Our aim is to eliminate it again. It will be very difficult to get back to zero. But now our work is on forecasting to see when [elimination] might happen. The WHO is doing some advice on this now: what might be the trigger for relaxing some of the current measures we’ve got in place.”

He confirmed that the case definition for testing is likely to be revised so that it does “not necessarily require a travel history or history of exposure to a confirmed or probable case”.

He also said work was under way to provide support to general practices being financially walloped by the lockdown measures.

Bloomfield confirmed there are 533 ventilators in the system, with others ordered from overseas, and more available in the private sector. It was just as important to ensure hospital staff were trained in using them, he said.

Asked about the Matamata cluster, which largely stems from a St Patrick’s Day party back on March 17, Bloomfield said: “There’s a big effort going in to trace and isolate all those close contacts, and test all those that need testing.”

2.00pm: New channels for essential items

A local government response unit has been established to help people access essential items such as food and medicine. “It’s intended for those facing hardship,” said Sarah Stuart-Black, director of Civil Defence Emergency Management, speaking at the briefing alongside Ashley Bloomfield.

The unit will support disabled people, at-risk groups, and people without their own transport. “From today, regional civil defence emergency management groups up and down the country will be operating local helplines,” she said. “We’ve invited regional CDEM groups to proactively approach local food banks to replenish stocks.” The government would reimburse these groups in full. Stuart-Black added that iwi liaisons will be embedded in all regional emergency coordination centres.

After a note on wet wipes (don’t flush them), Stuart-Black addressed returning New Zealanders. She said those without an isolation plan were being quarantined, but “more are arriving with a good isolation plan so fewer are needing to be accommodated unless they have symptoms”. Groups of those previously in quarantine were being flown to Wellington or Christchurch “to continue self-isolation in their own homes”.

On visitors for overseas, there was work being done to get them home, but it was made difficult by a lack of commercial flights. Visitors were urged to remain in self-isolation.

Please don’t be an arsehole to people unfortunate enough to have Covid-19, she said (this is a paraphrase).

1.40pm: 58 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, PPE to be distributed

There are 58 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, the director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, has announced at his daily briefing. Ten of those are probable, with 48 positive tests.

“While this is a drop in the number,” said Bloomfield, “our expectation is the number of cases will continue to increase.” He said the lower number reflects results from a lower number of tests on Sunday coming through.

The total New Zealand cases is now 636. Fourteen people are in hospital with Covid-19. Two are in Intensive Care, both stable.

The average daily tests across the last week is 1,777.

Bloomfield addressed concerns around access to protective equipment. He said the existing guidelines were sound, however: “I’m conscious our frontline health workers not only need to be safe, they need to feel safe”. They would therefore be “releasing a large number of masks from our national stocks out to DHBs. They will be distributing in their regions masks to frontline health workers in a range of organisations, including home and community support workers, disability support workers, some NGOs where they have face to face contact, pharmacies and other providers … We want our frontline health workers to feel they can access PPE for when they need it.”

Drawing attention to the modelling released today, Bloomfield said the scenarios presented a “sobering picture of what the impact of Covid-19 would be in Aotearoa New Zealand, if we were not taking a very decisive and strict approach to our response”. It revealed “a stark choice between acting decisively and going early and hard, and the counter-factual, which I think in anyone’s terms is unacceptable.”

He added: “I can’t say it enough, that requires everyone to play their part and observe the self-isolation rules and to avoid social contact. That is how we will collectively break the chain of transmission.”

1.15pm: Carers struggling to secure PPE

Note: if you’re looking for the latest Covid-19 briefing, it’s been pushed back to 1.30pm

Carers for the disabled and elderly say they’re still struggling to get personal protective equipment they need to keep themselves and patients safe. Many workers are sewing their own masks or considering not going to work at all until the situation is resolved, RNZ reports.

Disability rights commissioner Paula Tesoriero says the government needs to change its current guidelines, which do not require community carers to wear masks. “A national emergency really spotlights the existing cracks that we have in the system. Disabled people – before the crisis – were perhaps able to manage in the situation that they were in with the right support. “But they become at risk when those supports fall through. And those supports are falling through.”

12.55pm: Scrutiny committee wraps up

Epidemiologist Sir David Skegg has been called back to the Zoom committee to conclude its first day.

He said he was disappointed by the lack of the use of the word “elimination” by the health minister. Without elimination, he said, New Zealand would end up on the same road as Britain and the US. That could “paralyse our society for a year or 18 months”, he said. To achieve elimination, however, would mean New Zealand could resume some version of normal life with a month, with stringent border controls in place.

It wasn’t a matter of eradication, he clarified, but about “getting it down to a defined minimum number of cases which can be handled at a local level”.

Skegg said he was keen on more “clarity of purpose” from the government and urged them to produce an overarching strategic plan. That should include community testing across the country, to ensure there are not “undetected clusters”.

He added: “I don’t think we should be talking about flattening the curve. We should talk about flatlining the curve.”

The select committee tasked with scrutinising the government’s response to Covid-19, lead by opposition leader Simon Bridges.

12.45pm: Sign language interpreters under pressure

New Zealand’s skilled sign language interpreters have been visible in recent weeks at press briefings, providing crucial translations for deaf people. A lot of people have expressed their admiration; but not everyone. Deaf Aotearoa and the Sign Language Interpreters Association of New Zealand have issued a statement urging people to desist from derogatory comments and parody videos.

Micky Vale, the president of SLIANZ, said: “Sign language interpreters are working in a very fast-paced, challenging environment and this requires a high degree of skill. In providing access to deaf people in this way, interpreters are having to place themselves in the limelight which can be stressful in itself and NZSL interpreters do not need the added stress of being made the butt of jokes or negative comments.”

The ruling from The Spinoff editorial board is that the interpreters are heroes.

12.35pm: State of emergency extended

In what may be the least surprising news of the day, the State of National Emergency has been extended by seven days. The initial declaration was made six days ago. In a statement the minister responsible for civil defence, Peeni Henare, said: “Extending the State of National Emergency ensures we have all the resources, support and powers we need to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our communities.”

12.25pm: Is the testing regime adequate?

The scrutiny committee has moved on to testing: whether the criteria are right and the right people are being tested.

Bloomfield said the case definition had evolved to include a wider range of symptoms, with clinicians able to use their discretion. He said around 3% of tests undertaken were returned as positive.

Testing capacity has trebled in the last 10 days.

Clark said New Zealand has 35,000 test kits on hand, or around 20 days’ supply, and another 30,000 arriving later this week, with more in train.

The technical advisory group is meeting today, said Bloomfield, to look at widening the case definition to include a wider range of respiratory symptoms.

Did the global shortage of reagents for testing influence capacity or clinical judgments? “It’s not influencing clinical decision making,” said Bloomfield. Capacity continued to increase. “There is a global challenge around the supply of reagents,” he noted, particularly for the proprietorial models. In one example, demand had increased 70-fold. Labs in New Zealand used a range of platforms, and more were introducing generic models.

On reports that clinicians’ judgments were being overruled by people at testing stations, Bloomfield said: “People at testing sessions are also professionals… They will be determining based on the symptoms, and the epidemiology, and the case definition.”

Asked about the new, rapid tests being employed in parts of the world, Bloomfield said: “We’re looking at all the options, including rapid testing.” For more on this question, and the difference between the PCR tests and the rapid antibody (serology) tests, see Siouxsie Wiles’s piece from earlier today.

Bloomfield said that healthcare workers are not being routinely tested as there is confidence in the PPE and protocols they’re using. They will test those in close contact with cases.

On plans for wider testing in the community, Bloomfield said a plan had been ready to go involving a range of GPs, but that was suspended after the country entered lockdown, given in-person consultations largely stopped. He said a revised plan was now being developed and they were looking at “more population-wide surveys of both symptomatic and asymptomatic people to see just what the level of infection is”.

On the issue of small grocery stores reopening to ease pressure on supermarkets. Bloomfield said supermarkets can provide space, security and hygiene facilities that aren’t as feasible in smaller grocery stores. But, “the idea was to start as tight as we could, and review as we go”.

On the issue of the ban on print publications apart from daily newspapers, David Clark said ministers had not issued any edict on the issue and that “conversations are happening”. An announcement was likely from the minister responsible for media, Kris Faafoi, later in the week, he said.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has just announced that today’s briefing has been moved back to 1.30pm, perhaps so that Bloomfield, currently facing the scrutiny committee, can make it in time. The prime minister is expected to give her daily briefing at 3pm.

11.45am: ‘A major challenge to avoid tens of thousands of deaths’ – Clark

The health minister, David Clark, is speaking at the parliamentary Epidemic Response Committee, together with the director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. In his opening remarks, Clark pointed to modelling that suggested, despite the measures introduced, “we continue to face a major challenge to avoid tens of thousands of deaths”.

He said that on the basis of the models, even a 25% drop in contacts between New Zealanders would see 1.1 million become ill and 12,700 deaths. A drop in half in contacts would see those numbers drop, respectively, by 250,000 and 4,000. For more on the modelling, just released by the Ministry of Health, see here.

Clark said there were adequate provisions of protective equipment, with 18 million face masks, as well as 5 million masks in national reserves, 2.4 million pairs of gloves and 60,000 eye and face protection items. More was being sought abroad. Hospitals were well prepared, he said, with DHBs confident they can provide 533 ventilated beds. But the system could come under “unprecedented pressure” unless the lockdown was successful.

Pressed repeatedly about how he could be sure everyone arriving was complying with the requirements, Bloomfield said: “The enforcement of self-isolation is not a health responsibility, it’s a police and all-of-government effort.” But “most New Zealanders understand what their obligations are”.

Asked about adequate provisions of protective equipment, and procurement of supplies, Clark said there was “a good deal” of PPE in reserves, but they were focused on “an ongoing supply”, both in domestic manufacturing and from abroad. As far as private providers’ offers were concerned, “we have looked at the idea of a portal as a means for people to channel those offers through”. he said.

For more from the committee, scroll on down to 10.15am.

11.05am: A reminder, please don’t order your shopping online unless you must

If you’re not sure why, please read this, which just arrived from a Spinoff reader: “I am 74 and have an autoimmune disease. My husband is 76. I have tried to order my weekly groceries to be delivered but am unable to book a delivery. We are nagged at to keep away from all other contact but have no choice but to go shopping for ourselves.”

Meanwhile, this just in from Newshub. Huge if true; a pubic health emergency.

10.55am: Ministry of Health releases modelling 

In the worst-case scenario modelled, almost 150,000 New Zealanders would be hospitalised with Covid-19 and more than 35,000 would lose their lives, according to the information being used by the Ministry of Health to inform decisions. The outcomes were particularly horrifying for Māori and Pacific people. Toby Manhire has written a report on the modelling, which you can read in full here.

10.50am: Lockdown must be backed with other actions, says expert

Epidemiologist Sir David Skegg has been speaking to the committee about what else will be required on top of the existing level four lockdown.

“A lockdown on its own is not enough, it’s like pressing the pause button on your device… We all know how costly this national lockdown will be in human and economic terms, it will be a waste if we do not pull out all the stops now to eliminate Covid-19.”

Among the other actions he highlighted as being necessary was the continuation of some border restrictions, and a strong focus on testing.

National’s health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse asked whether he was “saying that the government should formally quarantine all arriving passengers from now on?”

Skegg responded that he was “concerned that self-isolation might not be enough, because we all know people might flout the advice given to them. I do think we should do what Australia is doing now, which is quarantine.”

10.40am: PPE in focus at select committee

Act leader David Seymour said there have been widespread complaints from medical professionals and carers about the lack of PPE, asking what the government’s approach is for procurement and whether the government is being open about the supply.

Ombler said there’s a page on the Covid-19 website directing what PPE requirements are for different professions, and that should provide some clarity for those still working. “You don’t want to send a whole lot of stuff to people who don’t need it.”

“There is a lot of work going on in the health sector and in essential services to get the right gear to the right people… there are millions of masks and other protective equipment being sent around the country at the moment.

“If there’s somebody who requires equipment and doesn’t have it, then health boards across the country would be working on that.”

10.15am: Epidemic response committee begins sitting 

The select committee tasked with scrutinising the government’s response to Covid-19 has started sitting today, with meetings taking place over Zoom. National leader Simon Bridges will chair the committee, on which the opposition will have a slight majority.

On the agenda today: all-of-government controller John Ombler is currently being questioned, and he will be followed by health minister Dr David Clark, Ministry of Health director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and independent witness Sir David Skegg. Full proceedings can be watched by the public here:

Asked by Paul Goldsmith whether he’s absolutely sure the rules for isolation, particularly international arrival quarantine, are being understood, Ombler said “I think absolute is too strong a word.”

“For international arrivals it is quarantine for 14 days, so that does not mean going down to the supermarket… For people who have not arrived from overseas it is entirely different. It is about isolating at home and going out only to do simple tasks. There are different rules for different people.”

“My understanding is that everybody who arrives internationally is being given instructions about what to do. The police have been checking on a number of people, not all, but a sample.”

Asked what measures are in place to ensure Māori and Pacific people are catered to, Ombler said there have been many organisations catering to these specific needs. He mentioned Te Puni Kōkiri and one initiative by Whānau Ora, which “sent out a large number of packs of cleaning supplies”.

“We’re doing what we can through such organisations to ensure we are well communicated and can respond to issues as soon as we can.”

Like all of us, they’re finding the technology takes some getting used to. “You’re on mute there, David,” said Simon Bridges to Act leader David Seymour.

9.55am: Concerning first-person account on testing

Stuff reporter Tom Kitchen felt sick, and had some of the symptoms consistent with Covid-19. He was twice denied a test, and almost denied a third time. He didn’t expect to test positive, but that’s exactly how it came back. He gives his account of the events here, and argues that it shows the criteria for testing needs to be widened further.

9.30am: Rebuild costs will take generations, says Robertson

Finance minister Grant Robertson has also been on Mike Hosking Breakfast this morning. He outlined his vision for what the economic recovery would involve, making it clear that the country will still be paying off what is borrowed now for years and decades to come. Robertson also argued that the recovery will depend on diversification of the economy. “We need to look at manufacturing, and adding value to products in New Zealand as well as exporting them. Tourism, international education won’t be coming back for a while.”

8.50am: Sir John Key on what he believes is needed

The former PM and subsequent chair of ANZ Bank Sir John Key has been speaking to Mike Hosking Breakfast this morning. Josie Adams was listening, and filed this update:

John Key has weighed in on the economic pitfalls of the level four lockdown and the incoming recession. “About a third of people probably still are working in some sort of emergency capacity, if you like,” he said. “About a third are working from home, but on much lower levels of productivity. And a third of people are literally doing nothing, lost their jobs, or at least are not working at all. So the reality is, that’s a massive chunk of economic activity. So the question is, how do you get that going again?”

He suggested small businesses would require the most investment. Small business owners, like many of us, are currently under financial pressure. “Do we really need to drown those people in red tape and bureaucracy in a time like this? I think we’re going to have to lighten the load a bit on them and let business start to flourish a bit.”

Key suggested that China could be a litmus test for how bad the global recession will be. “They were a massive part of us getting out of the GFC because they were the economic engine. If they’re 16% of the world economy and they stop in their tracks, that’s not good for anyone.”

However, Key has heard reports that the economy in China is recovering. “Consumer demand in China is rising,” he said. “It’s always darkest before dawn.”

Meanwhile, current National leader Simon Bridges is repeating his calls for a deferral of the minimum wage increase for six months. “Increasing the minimum wage will add substantial costs at a time where almost every industry in New Zealand is feeling the pain of the coronavirus outbreak and this additional cost will hit them hard,” said Bridges.

8.30am: New study suggests unchecked spread could see 14,000 NZers die from Covid-19

New modelling from the University of Otago predicts at least 14,000 New Zealanders could die if current efforts to stop Covid-19’s spread in New Zealand fail. Professor Nick Wilson from the University of Otago told Susie Ferguson on RNZ’s Morning Report today that if the lockdown strategy fails, over half of the population could be infected. “The worst-case scenario is when elimination fails, the virus spread is uncontrolled and we’re looking at up to 64% of New Zealanders getting sick, up to 32,000 people needing hospitalisation and up to 14,000 people potentially dying.”

Wilson said to ensure the safety of New Zealanders, the number of tests being administered needs to dramatically increase. Current estimates show around 2,000 tests are being carried out every day. “Based on the successes that we’ve seen in various countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, where the level of testing has been much higher, I’m arguing that we really need to ratchet up to those levels.”

8.20am: Air NZ reveals full extent of devastation to its business

Alex Braae reports on a letter from CEO Greg Foran that lays bare the full extent of Air NZ’s losses.

“The losses in revenue are taking place on a colossal scale. Previously Air New Zealand had been one of the country’s biggest companies, with revenues of almost $6bn a year. Last year’s profit was a very healthy $374 million, and they had cash reserves of about a billion dollars in case of a rainy day.

But the rainy day has turned out to be a monsoon, and even those large buffers won’t come close to covering the losses. In the message, Foran said “the global reduction in air travel has hit Air New Zealand hard and we are earning less than $500 million revenue annually based on the current booking patterns. This means we are dealing with a significant reduction of over $5 billion in revenue per year. Those are losses of around 90% of revenue, which would be catastrophic to even the most secure businesses in the world.”

Read the full story on The Spinoff here

7.45am: The Spinoff launches new always-on daily Covid-19 data visualisations

Chris McDowall, co-author of the extraordinary new atlas of New Zealand We Are Here, has put together a range of charts and maps that help visually explain the spread of and battle against Covid-19 in this country. Below are a couple of screengrabs as the interactives are currently not working within the app (app users click here to read in a browser window).

This shows the numbers of cases, recoveries and deaths, overlaid with our alert system.

This reveals the spread of cases by DHB, helping understand what’s going on in your area.

It’s a fantastic resource, one we will publish daily and evolve over time. I’d encourage you to check it out daily to get a sense of how we’re tracking. Click here to absorb it in full.

7.30am: Fourth arrest for persistent breaches of lockdown

In an interview on Morning Report, police commissioner Mike Bush has said that a fourth person has been arrested for persistent breaches of the level four lockdown rules, and is currently in custody. He said police were focused on maintaining public confidence and keen not to be “over-zealous”. He also told host Corin Dann that 380 police staff are in isolation for a range of reasons, some having come into contact with the two staff who have tested positive for Covid-19. During the interview, Dann coughed, prompting Bush to ask if he was OK.

7.15am: 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

A Queenstown nurse has tested positive for Covid-19, bringing to light wider fears of health workers. The Otago Daily Times reports the nurse worked at the Lakes District Hospital, where there have been several Covid-19 patients in recent days. However, that particular staff member had not treated those patients directly, so an investigation is currently underway as to how they contracted the virus. Other staff are also being tested, and are in self-isolation as a precaution. 

For the system as a whole, these sorts of incidents bring to light fears that the workforce could face staffing shocks at unexpected moments. After the country’s first Covid-19 death, 21 staff members at Greymouth’s hospital had to go into self-isolation after treating the patient, who they originally thought had influenza, rather than the coronavirus. Radio NZ reports that subsequently staff were redeployed from Canterbury to help fill the gaps on the West Coast. In this instance, they’ll be able to manage. But rural areas and smaller centres are at huge risk of such incidents, because staffing levels start at a much lower base. 

Nurses and other health professionals also have very real fears of what is to come. One nurse spoke to The Spinoff candidly and anonymously about what their last few weeks have been like, and their fears that if a major outbreak were to happen, New Zealand could go the way of Italy. Community healthcare workers are also deeply worried, particularly with a lack of PPE available to them, with a group telling Newsroom that they’re concerned they could become carriers of the virus and bring it back to their own families. Stuff reports the Ministry of Health is currently scrambling to set up new distribution networks for PPE, amid anecdotal reports that some parts of the country didn’t have enough. 

Even with those fears, the health workforce is still stepping up to this immense challenge. That includes those who are staying through this crisis, but also the more than 6000 health professionals who weren’t in the workforce who have put their hands up to return, including those who have recently retired. It’s a remarkable display of selflessness and service. 

And you’re probably getting bored of hearing this message again and again, but it still stands. You can do something to help these health workers, by staying at home and not putting yourself at risk of catching Covid-19 – or in fact not doing anything to put yourself at risk of needing medical attention at all. Because there are going to be a lot of us – through no fault of their own – who will need to get treatment for all sorts of conditions and illnesses over the coming months, and the health system has to be able to handle them all. 

Just quickly, a message from The Spinoff 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 The 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.” 

More detail is emerging around some of the clusters of Covid-19 that have popped up. Two of the stories really reinforce the need for social gatherings to be cancelled right now. Radio NZ reports the cluster in Matamata is mostly linked to a single St Patrick’s Day celebration in a bar. And the Dominion Post’s Tom Hunt has a rather colourful report on a cluster centred around a wedding in Wellington. Meanwhile, the largest cluster by far, around Marist College in Auckland, is now up to 47 confirmed and probable cases.  

A moderate victory for New Zealanders living in Australia and hoping for government support: They will be eligible for a huge new wage subsidy, which is aimed at keeping workers on the books at companies, reports Henry Cooke at Stuff. But as the story also notes, most unemployed New Zealanders over there will still be barred from accessing welfare payments, even if until recently they were paying taxes. 

Supermarkets have been warned that a new email alert system has been set up for the public to make price-gouging complaints. The details on this story can be found in yesterday’s live updates page, and the email address is pricewatch@mbie.govt.nz. Supermarkets have consistently denied they’re putting prices up to cash in on their monopoly over the food supply market, and Business Desk (paywalled) has reported comments from Foodstuffs’ North Island CEO Chris Quin, who says the sector is at risk of unfair scrutiny. “The media only have two topics to talk about at the moment: coronavirus and supermarkets. There is nothing else in the news,” he said.  

Guidelines on funerals and tangihanga have been changed after consultation with Māori, reports Te Manu Korihi. It followed concerns that the previous guidelines were far too restrictive on visiting the deceased in the funeral home, in a breach of tikanga. The guidelines have been relaxed only slightly – they still apply only to those within the bubble of the deceased, and regional travel is still out. But the new rules give more of an opportunity to grieve properly, says funeral director Francis Tipene, who consulted on the changes. 

Landlords who are considering offering hard-up tenants a reduction in rent are being discouraged by a nationwide property management company, reports Radio NZ’s Robin Martin. The move from Property Brokers has appalled tenancy advocates, who say it goes totally against the call from government for people to be kind to each other amid the global pandemic, and the economic disruption it is causing. Even some other property investors say it’s a weird call, given the offers are being freely made by landlords to tenants in need. On this issue, it’s worth reading this opinion piece from Metro’s Tess Nichol calling for an expansion of imagination around tenancy relationships, particularly in times of economic crisis. 

6.50am: World update – Trump concedes US won’t be reopening by Easter

President Trump, in a departure from an earlier prediction of an end to restrictions by Easter, overnight extended them through at least the end of April. He did make a new prediction, though, that Easter would mark the virus’s peak in the US. “That’s going to be the highest point, we think, and then it’s going to start coming down from there,” he said in an interview on Fox & Friends. “That will be a day of celebration.” His comments came in the aftermath of the CDC’s Dr Anthony Fauci and the White House’s Deborah Birx informing him that up to 200,000 Americans could die through the pandemic. Meanwhile, New York mayor Bill de Blasio described the situation there as “battlefield medicine”, warning that the city would run out of key medical supplies by the week’s end. And Detroit became the latest US city to record a surge in cases, as the total US number infected reached 144,000.

The tragedy in Spain and Italy lingers on. After recording a record 838 deaths, Spain has imposed an even more severe lockdown, calling for a national period of “hibernation” in allowing only essential workers to leave their homes from now through April 9. Italy recorded 812 deaths, an increase over previous days, but its 4,000 positive tests were the lowest number of new cases since March 17, suggesting the long-awaited crest of the epidemic might be behind it.

Chillingly, questions are being asked about China’s stubbornly static numbers of infections. For weeks they have sat in the low 80,000s, while other countries with comparable outbreaks, like the US and Italy, have soared past them. In part this has been attributed to the swift, lengthy and draconian lockdown the state instituted. But the New York Times reports that it is also categorising its infections very differently to the rest of the world, in not adding to its tally people who test positive but do not get sick. There are fears asymptomatic carriers are spreading the virus, and that the country risks a major outbreak. With tight controls on media, including the removal of some key foreign correspondents, it’s increasingly difficult to get reliable information about the virus’s status there.

The global tally of infections is now 745,000, with 35,000 deaths and 156,000 recoveries.

6.15am: Yesterday’s key news beats

  • The government decided to allow the sale of certain key household goods, such as whiteware, computers and heaters.
  • Prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced a new email contact for members of the public to report any apparent price gouging: pricewatch@mbie.govt.nz.
  • The Waikato DHB confirmed the Matamata cluster of Covid-19 cases is linked to a St Patrick’s Day celebration at the Redoubt Bar.
  • The Covid-19 crisis that’s hit media claimed Radio Sport, New Zealand’s last station dedicated solely to live sport.
  • The site set up to allow reporting of people not adhering to the alert level four crashed, with 4,200 reports received, and police commissioner Mike Bush said there had been three arrests relating to “consistent breaches”.
  • Bush said two police staff had tested positive for Covid-19, and several hundred police staff were now self-isolating.
  • Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, announced 76 new Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, bringing the total number to 589. He urged people who were not in a high-priority group (over 65, those with pre-existing medical conditions, pregnant women, children with respiratory illnesses and frontline workers) not to seek a flu vaccine, and issued reassurances around PPE, saying DHBs had been told anyone presenting with a lower respiratory tract infection should be treated as if they have Covid-19, and home-based carers would have access to masks.
  • Countdown pledged to provide a worker bonus, matching Foodstuffs’ decision last night to provide a 10% bonus to its New World, Pak n Save and Four Square staff, and reintroduce specials.
  • The Act Party called on the government to give butchers, grocers and bakeries the right to open, to prevent supermarkets from having a monopoly over food supply, but the prime minister ruled this out in her afternoon press conference.
  • In an interview with RNZ’s Morning Report, the prime minister indicated that some parts of the country may be able to move down from alert level four after the initial four-week lockdown period.
  • Facebook announced it would work with Australian Associated Press (AAP) on a fact-checking initiative for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, to “reduce the spread of misinformation on our platforms”.

Live updates written by Duncan Greive, Alex Braae, Toby Manhire, Alice Neville and Leonie Hayden



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.