blog march 4 upd

Covid-19March 4, 2021

Live updates, March 4: No new community cases; lodger staying ‘home alone’ in Covid-19 family’s house

blog march 4 upd

Live coverage of the snap lockdown and the search for a source of the latest infection. Auckland is now at alert level three, NZ at level two. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz 

4pm: Home alone: Lodger living with one of the Covid cluster families has not moved to quarantine

One of the four families linked to the Valentine’s Day cluster had a lodger who is remaining in the house, despite being a close contact of the family, Stuff reports. While the rest of the household has moved to the Jet Park quarantine facility, the lodger has opted to stay on alone – a decision that the Ministry of Health says it supports.

“They have been contacted, tested and isolated at home with daily management,” a ministry spokeswoman told Stuff.

“The person has been self-isolating since the time he might have developed the disease, has returned a negative result and will be tested a second time in the coming days.”

The ministry has declined to say which of the families the lodger had been living with, nor comment on the extent of the lodger’s supervision while they are in self-isolation.

2.15pm: Orr issues warning to property buyers relying on low interest rates alone

Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr has suggested people are not considering the risks of purchasing assets, including property, at inflated prices and low interest rates, while their incomes and savings remained stagnant.

According to Stuff, Orr told attendees at the New Zealand Economics Forum at Waikato University there was “absolutely a question mark over house prices globally and in Aotearoa New Zealand, relative to household earnings”.

The comments follow Orr’s forum keynote address in which he acknowledged that while lower interest rates and monetary policy tools were necessary to stimulate the economy in the face of Covid-19, they disproportionately benefited certain parts of society.

Orr said lower interest rates assisted in “inflating asset prices, with the subsequent ‘wealth effect’ supporting spending by the owners of these assets.

“This ‘wealth effect’ directly benefits the owners of the assets, but it only indirectly impacts others in the economy through the subsequent increase in economic activity and jobs,” he said.

Orr welcomed the government’s recent directive for the RBNZ to pursue sustainable house prices by “dampening investor demand for existing housing stock which would improve affordability for first-home buyers.

“We will be considering our financial stability policy settings… with a view to moderating housing demand, particularly from investors, to best ensure house price sustainability.”

He added that the Monetary Policy Committee’s remit to maintain low and stable consumer price inflation and contribute to maximum sustainable employment “remain unchanged”.

The day prior, finance minister Grant Robertson appeared at the forum via lifestream and defended the cost of the government’s fiscal response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It will still see New Zealand sit among the least indebted countries in the world,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to gain the impression that we think we’ve been perfect here. We’ve made mistakes but what we’ve shown is that we can be adaptable and we can respond when we see mistakes being made.”

1.00pm: No new community Covid-19 cases on crucial day for Auckland

There are no new community cases of Covid-19, on what is an important day for Aucklanders wanting to move out of lockdown over the weekend. It means there have now been four consecutive days with no growth in the Auckland cluster.

Speaking from the Ministry of Health, Ashley Bloomfield said six new cases are in managed isolation, identified at day zero testing. Two people from MIQ are currently in Auckland hospitals. One of them is one of the positive Covid-19 cases but it’s not clear whether this person is there on account of their Covid infection or another reason.

Yesterday, 14,671 tests were processed, 7,853 of which were in Auckland. Since Monday, 45 home visits have been undertaken, In all visits, the people were isolating, said Bloomfield.

Of the 185 attendees at the Papatoetoe City Fitness gym – all “casual plus” contacts – 156 have so far returned a negative test. The remaining 29 will be followed up with today, said Bloomfield.

Meanwhile, there are 44 casual plus contacts from MIT, two of whom have returned negative day five tests. Of the 1,882 Kmart contacts, 43 have not yet returned test results, 42 of whom are isolating. 11 Papatoetoe High School students haven’t yet tested negative for a second time. The school’s principal today said testing will be finished by tomorrow.

Two of the students have refused the tests, who are being managed with isolation plans. There is one outstanding student who contact tracers are trying to find, said Bloomfield, but they have returned one negative test.

Wastewater samples taken on Monday at three Auckland sites have come back negative, as have samples from Rotorua and Christchurch. Bloomfield said that saliva testing – that continued to have a “lot of interest” from people – is being trialled at quarantine facilities.

The Ministry of Health plans to work with a private provider that has established saliva testing for asymptomatic surveillance testing of border workers. Alongside the trial of voluntary use of saliva testing in MIQ, the ministry is likely to request proposals from companies to provide twice weekly saliva testing in MIQ, which will run alongside nasopharyngeal testing.

More than 800 vaccinators around the country have now been trained, Bloomfield said, and by midnight last night, two-thirds of the border workforce had been vaccinated.

With some outstanding testing results for the gym contacts, keeping Auckland in alert level three is justified, said Bloomfield. However, even if there are new positive cases tomorrow, it wouldn’t necessarily mean Auckland couldn’t move out of level three on Saturday night as planned.

Asked what will inform his advice to cabinet around whether the lockdown should be extended beyond Sunday, Bloomfield said he will consider the same criteria as with previous lockdowns.

Cabinet will meet tomorrow to make that decision, he said. The high rates of testing over the last few days have been very helpful. “Tying up loose ends from the college”, earlier contacts from Kmart, and the later exposure events at MIT and the gym formed the current priority for getting test results, he said.

Bloomfield said that recent wastewater testing in Papatoetoe had not picked up any confirmed cases. He denied that this was problematic, saying it is a “complementary” form of testing. He said wastewater testing tended to pick up one case per 10,000 people, so there were too few cases for the population of South Auckland to register in the recent testing. If there had been 100 cases, it “definitely” would have picked them up, he said.

Prioritising South Auckland for vaccinations, as has been called for by some experts, was being considered.

On refusal of tests, Bloomfield said it could be due to belief systems – “there is a small number of people who subscribe to a belief that Covid-19 doesn’t actually exist – or it may just be “they really really don’t want to have a test”. Those people are managed and isolated to ensure there is no risk, and if they became symptomatic further action would be taken.

Bloomfield said he didn’t believe the two outstanding Papatoetoe High School students had had a first test.

On the symptoms seen among sufferers of this new UK variant, such as aches and pains, Bloomfield said because the outbreak is far more serious in the UK, where the variant originated, this new aspect may not have been noticed there. We observe things that are “right on the periphery of the pandemic”, he said. It also may have been seen because the cases here are mostly young.

Facing questions on a news story about a Malaysian MP who has been in New Zealand on 55 days’ leave, Bloomfield said he would have to go away and find out the details. It is being reported the MP entered managed isolation late last year but it’s not known how he secured a place in one of our MIQ facilities.

12.45pm: Watch – Bloomfield to speak as test results from Papatoetoe gym expected

Ashley Bloomfield is set to front today’s 1pm Covid-19 press conference. We’re expecting the first results to come in from the Papatoetoe City Fitness that was visited by a confirmed Covid-19 test.

Watch below:

12.30pm: Revenues up, spending down and smoking way down: Government economic update

Political editor Justin Giovannetti reports:

The economy is doing slightly better than expected, meaning that government revenues are up and expenses are down according to the Treasury’s half year economic and fiscal update.

This morning’s update is the latest in a string of projections going back nearly a year to the early depths of the Covid-19 crisis; the economic impact of the global pandemic has been less than expected, with many sectors of New Zealand’s economy continuing to power along.

The books however are still in deficit with $4.4 billion of red ink and Crown debt has surpassed $100 billion.

In a budget expected later this year, the government will reveal its plans to bring its accounts back into balance.“Our careful management of the government accounts has meant we are in a good position to respond financially to alert level rises such as those we are currently experiencing,” finance minister Grant Robertson said in a statement.

One unexpected surprise in the update is that New Zealanders seem to be smoking a lot less than expected, with tobacco duties plummeting to 29% less than expected, or $400 million lower than projected.

Some of that might be attributable to a drop in tourism, but it likely reflects a decline in smoking.


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On the agenda

1pm: Ashley Bloomfield will give an update on our Covid-19 response and reveal if there are any new cases. Overnight, no new cases were detected but more could have presented themselves since this morning.

Today will see the first results come in from the Papatoetoe gym visited by a confirmed Covid-19 case. If there are no positive tests, that will provide a strong case for the government to reduce our alert levels over the weekend.

Earlier this week, modelling expert Shaun Hendy told Toby Manhire that “if we start to see positive tests come back, particularly positive tests that suggest community exposure as opposed to close contacts, that’s where the alarm bells will start to go off.” At this stage, it would appear those alarm bells are still on stand-by, but we’ll have a much better indication of this at 1pm.

“Mid-week, I think we’ll have a sense of the shape of this cluster, and a bit more of an understanding: is a week going to be enough, or will a week look like overkill?” Hendy said.

11.30am: Questions about NZ vaccine rollout after no road map provided

Updated

The opposition is asking for more details around the rollout of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, after an update from Chris Hipkins yesterday presented little information.

As explained this morning by our political editor Justin Giovannetti, the government is yet to release any detailed roadmap for when most people will get a vaccine. Meanwhile, Australians, Canadians and Americans know where they stand in the queue for a jab.

National’s Judith Collins said while it’s great border workers have had their Covid vaccination, the rest of the country should know where they are in line.

“Australia has declared that everyone who wants a vaccine will have been offered one by October. There is no such target date in New Zealand,” Collins said in a statement. “Our government won’t even tell us when non-border frontline health workers will be vaccinated, even though there is enough Pfizer vaccine in the country for them already.

Act, meanwhile, called it a vaccination lottery: “I’ve always been of the view that if the government has a plan, we deserve to know it, and if they don’t have a plan, we deserve to know that too,” David Seymour said.

MPI staff ‘left behind’ 

Also this morning: a piece on the Herald explaining how Ministry for Primary Industries staff at the country’s biggest airports have reportedly been “left behind” for a Covid-19 jab.

“MPI border workers haven’t received [the vaccine] at the airport, Customs and Immigration apparently have. It sounds like MOH is messing them around,” an MPI source told the outlet. They said some MPI workers operate within a couple of metres of travellers coming through the airport, helping load bags at x-ray machines.

South Auckland rollout should start soon, says academic

Otago University academic Ben Gray told RNZ that South Auckland vaccinations should begin this month, after yesterday’s vaccine update failed to provide details on the public rollout.

“In terms of the wide population roll-out, protection is only going to be reasonably certain once we’re approaching herd immunity, so if a case gets out in the community right now we’ve got very little herd immunity and there’s this risk of it spreading,” Gray said. “We all know that South Auckland is at high risk because we’ve already had a couple of community outbreaks.”

10.00am: Police prosecute nearly 1000 Covid-19 rule breaches

Police have taken action against nearly 1000 Covid-related breaches, but there’s no indication charges will be laid against those choosing not to self-isolate.

Wellington has the most prosecutions with 197, followed by Canterbury with 158 and Counties Manukau with 125.

Commissioner Andrew Coster told RNZ if people refuse to self-isolate or get tested, police are only able to act if called in by health officials. Ashley Bloomfield has indicated that this is unlikely to happen. However, Coster said the police do pursue alert level violations like illegal mass gatherings and regional border breaches.

Over 6500 of the breaches were for violations of alert level rules last year. There were 1050 under level three and 58 under level two. Alongside the prosecutions, police have handed out 6352 verbal and written warnings.

9.00am: Australian attorney-general denies historic rape allegation

A story from yesterday afternoon that didn’t make it into the live updates.

Australia’s attorney-general Christian Porter has revealed himself as the MP facing an historic rape allegation.

Porter has strongly denied the claim he raped a 16-year-old in 1988, when he was 17. The woman at the centre of the allegations took her life last year.

As reported by The Guardian, Porter was compelled to come forward following days of media scrutiny over who the male cabinet minister accused of the assault may have been. Porter, speaking at a media conference Western Australia yesterday, said he was “deeply sorry” about the question mark that had been placed over the reputation of his fellow cabinet members.

He said the alleged incident “simply did not happen” and was “entirely untrue”. He had not had contact with the woman since 1988, he said, and remembered her as an “intelligent, bright, happy person”.

Despite the scrutiny, Porter vowed not to resign over the allegation. “If I stand down from my position as attorney-general because of an allegation about something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print,” Porter said.

“If that happens, anyone in public life is able to be removed simply by the printing of an allegation. Every child we raise can have their lives destroyed by online reporting of accusations alone.”

8.15am: No new Covid-19 cases, but lockdown won’t end early

There have been no new Covid-19 community cases since Auckland returned to alert level three on Sunday morning. Yet, there is no chance of coming out of lockdown earlier, the associate health minister said.

Associate health minister Peeni Henare told Newshub that no decision will be made on the lockdown until tomorrow’s cabinet meeting, and the current restrictions will remain in place for seven days as planned.

“The prime minister has made it clear we’re in this for seven days,” Henare said.

Papatoetoe High School faces threats; final lot of tests set for tomorrow

From tomorrow, everyone at Papatoetoe High School will have been tested for Covid-19 twice or spent the past 14 days in isolation, said the school’s principal.

Vaughan Couillault told Newstalk ZB that the school has faced some nasty comments from the public since becoming the epicentre of the recent outbreak – with one comment being passed onto the police.

“I did pass one on to the police because there was a bit of vitriol in it with words that would have offended my mother,” he said. “My mother’s not easily offended, I might add.”

The police said there isn’t a lot they could do about the threat, Couillault said, but they did follow it up.

8.00am: Food rationing and six months at level four – the government’s worst case Covid scenarios, revealed

An extraordinary report on Stuff this morning paints a terrifying picture of the government’s worst case scenario after Covid-19 arrived on our shores a year ago.

Food rationing, a six-month stint in alert level four, and a $30 billion wage subsidy were, at some point, all on the table for the government. That’s according to the “All-of-government paper on Managed Economy” – a paper released to Stuff under the Official Information Act.

“New Zealand’s inclusion in international shipping routes may be reduced if our imports of non-essential goods are limited and our exports are significantly reduced,” the paper read, suggesting “New Zealand may want or need to (rapidly) become more self-sufficient, to the extent practicable”.

That would have involved repurposing factories to make things such as PPE and rationing to ensure essential items were distributed fairly.

“A worst-case scenario might require the government to consider some combination of rationing and price control to ensure as much as possible that everyone in New Zealand has access to sufficient essential goods and services,” the paper said.

“Formal food rationing could be considered in the future because of sustained shortage of staples or because of a more extreme form of lockdown, most likely at a sub-regional level.”

If the level four lockdown had been extended through until December last year, the wage subsidy would have cost almost $30 billion, the paper revealed.

Read Thomas Coughlan’s full report here.


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7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

To lead off today, a story from the rural world with big implications for regional economies: Prices at the latest Global Dairy Auction are up a creamy 15% across the board. The Country reports this is the eighth such increase in a row, and the eleventh rise out of the last twelve auctions. It was pretty unexpected too – the opening line of that story reads “Kiwi dairy farmers could be forgiven for thinking that the decimal point was in the wrong place”. The price rises are seen as being based on incredibly strong demand out of Asia.

But it’s an especially good result for Fonterra, because their key product went up by even more. Whole milk powder prices are up 21%. The NZ Herald’s Jamie Gray reports Fonterra is now assessing whether their farmgate milk price should go higher for the next payout – something banks are already pricing into their forecasts. The strong auction also pushed share prices up for Fonterra and A2.

For the parts of the country that rely heavily on dairy, these sorts of results are a godsend. In Southland, Stuff’s Logan Savory reports farmers are talking up the prospect of that money flowing through the regional economy. As one farm owner put it, “everyone gets a bit of it. It’s the old story; when farming is going well [New Zealand] is going well.” However, the optimism was also tempered by a bit of nervousness – like any commodity, sharp price rises in dairy aren’t always sustainable, and it could fall again just as quickly.

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