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Omicron outbreak: 126 new cases, more RATs on the way

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for February 1 (yes, we’re already in Feb). I’m Stewart Sowman-Lund. Get in touch with me on

The latest

Feb 1 2022

Charlotte Bellis offered MIQ slot

Photo: RNZ

Pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis could soon be on her way home.

Deputy prime minister Grant Robertson today confirmed she had been offered a spot in MIQ. “There is a secured place for her, with a flight arrangement alongside it, which has been communicated to her today,” said Robertson.

He would not comment on claims that the government had breached Bellis’ privacy by revealing details of her fight to get home.

Meanwhile, Bellis’ saga has gone global, with the former Al Jazeera journalist appearing on Fox News. “Taliban helped me, my country won’t,” read the news banner.

Bellis first made her plight to return home public in an opinion piece published on Saturday in the NZ Herald. In that piece, the journalist wrote: “The decision of who should get an emergency MIQ spot is not made on a level playing field, lacks ethical reasoning and pits our most vulnerable against each other.”

Another 36 million rapid Covid tests on the way

An antigen test (rapid test device) showing a negative result (Photo Illustration: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The government has once again pushed back at the claim it snapped up rapid antigen tests that had been ordered by the private sector.

Another 36 million rapid antigen tests will be winging their way to New Zealand over the coming months, it has been announced, and the government reiterated no tests ordered by the private sector prior to the government’s largest order in January have been used to fill government orders.

Twenty million tests from Kudu Spectrum and 16 million from CoShield have been purchased and will be delivered over February and March. That’s on top of the 16.9 million orders already confirmed for delivery this month and the 5.1 million tests already in the country – a total of 55 million across the next two months.

Through until June, the number more than doubles with 123 million on order.

Watch live:

“Modelling on the use of rapid antigen tests through the outbreak suggests that during the peak we may be using as many as nine million RATs a week which is equivalent to testing a quarter of New Zealand every day, or all of New Zealand twice a week,” said associate health minister Ayesha Verrall.

“That scale of testing will go a long way to reducing the risk of an infected person going to work and infecting others, and will help with keeping critical services and supply chains open and moving.”

Many of the rapid tests will be used to implement the “test to return” policy for asymptomatic critical workers, said Verrall, meaning hospitals and supermarkets will be able to continue operating throughout the outbreak.

Verrall said that if businesses can find an approved supply of rapid antigen tests, and they can import them, “there is nothing stopping businesses from using these tests”.

If you’re reading this, Simon Bridges…

Simon Bridges led the National Party between 2018 to 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

An economic researcher whose writing was “assigned reading” for National’s finance spokesperson Simon Bridges is hoping for a coffee date.

The Herald reported that Christopher Luxon asked Bridges to read Max Rashbrooke’s “Too Much Money” over the summer break. Bridges reportedly enjoyed it and agreed “a lot” with what Rashbrooke wrote.

I asked Max what he made of that, and he responded:

The question of course is what would National do about economic inequalities and disparities in opportunity? Would they significantly reduce them, or just manage the very high level of inequality we inherited from the 80s/90s, as the last 20 years’ worth of governments generally have? It’s not an impossible task for a National government, despite what some people might think: inequality fell across the 12 years of Keith Holyoake’s 1960-1972 National government, for instance. But, like that government, this National Party would have to have a strong view of New Zealand as a society, where people have responsibilities to others, not just a collection of individuals. Anyway, I look forward to discussing those issues with Bridges sometime, maybe over a coffee!

Cabinet to finalise border reopening dates – but no details today

It could be the beginning of the end of the closed border. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

An announcement on New Zealand’s border reopening could be coming soon, with cabinet considering the issue today.

RNZ reports that while a date for reconnecting us with the world was on today’s cabinet agenda, details will not be revealed at this afternoon’s post-cabinet press conference.

The borders were previously scheduled to reopen to vaccinated Australian arrivals from January, followed by a staggered opening for all other travellers through until April. Plans were ultimately put on hold due to the rise of the omicron variant.

The latest vaccine data: 22,508 more boosters

There were 22,508 booster doses administered yesterday, taking the total to date to 1,324,160. There were also 5,826 paediatric doses – the vaccine given to those aged 5-11 – given yesterday, bringing the total to 169,316.

“Boosters lower your chances of getting very sick and being hospitalised,” said the Ministry of Health. “Being boosted also helps slow the spread of the virus. If you’re over 18 and your booster is due, please get it now. Evidence to date is that the rate of adverse reactions to a booster dose is similar to people receiving their second dose.”

For more vaccine data analysis, visit The Spinoff’s Covid Tracker page here.

The shape of the outbreak

Covid community cases rose again today, with 126 new infections reported by the Ministry of Health.

As you can see from the chart below, the start of the omicron outbreak has seen a sharp uptake in case numbers compared with most of January.

There were also 79 new cases detected at the border. All are presumed to be the omicron variant.

For more pandemic data analysis, visit The Spinoff’s Covid Tracker page here

126 new community Covid-19 cases across 11 regions

Motorists queue at the Ōtara testing station. (Photo: DAVID ROWLAND / AFP)

There are 126 new community cases of Covid-19 today across the country, with 11 regions reporting new infections.

The Ministry of Health has confirmed cases in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Lakes, Bay of Plenty, Tairāwhiti, Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, Nelson Marlborough, and Canterbury.

The total number of omicron vs delta infections is no longer being reported, with the ministry saying omicron is now the dominant variant of Covid-19 in our community.

At the border, there are 79 new cases – all presumed to be omicron as well.

Today’s case details

There are five new cases in Northland, with four linked to previous cases and one under investigation. Of these five cases, three are in Kerikeri, one is in the Bay of Islands, and one is in Whangārei.

A number of new locations of interest have been reported today across Northland.

In Auckland, there are 84 cases to report. Health and welfare providers are now supporting 1,177 people in the region to isolate at home, including 427 cases.

There are 20 new cases in Waikato, with 18 linked to previous cases and two under investigation.

In the Lakes area, there is one new case being reported in Rotorua today. It has been linked to a previously reported case.

Eight new cases are in the Bay of Plenty, all linked to previous cases. Of these cases, two are in Tauranga and six are in the Western Bay of Plenty.

There are two new cases to report in Tairāwhiti today, both linked to previous cases.

There is one new case to report in New Plymouth today, who is a household contact of a previously reported case.

In addition, there are a further three South Taranaki cases being announced today, which will be officially added to the Ministry’s case numbers tomorrow. These three cases are all known contacts of the previously reported case in Hawera and have been self-isolating since the original case was identified.

These are the cases reported earlier by Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Two new cases are being reported in Hawke’s Bay today, both linked to previously reported cases. In addition, a Hawke’s Bay case, with links yet to be established, is being announced today and will be officially added to the Ministry’s case numbers tomorrow.

In Wellington, one new case has been reported in the Hutt Valley. They are a household contact of a previously reported case.

There is one new case being reported in Nelson Marlborough today, with links established to a previously reported case.

Finally, in Canterbury, one new case is being reported, with links established to a previously reported case. In addition, there are a further four linked cases being announced today, which will be officially added to the Ministry’s case numbers tomorrow.

Māori Party MP reports four omicron cases in Hāwera, frustrated with comms delay

Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

The co-leader of the Māori Party has expressed her frustration at the delay between people being told they have Covid-19 and the wider public being informed.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, who is based in Taranaki, has claimed there are four omicron cases in Hāwera. But, because of the Ministry of Health cut-off time, she said they won’t be included in today’s official tally

“We need real time info so vulnerable communities mobilise to get tested asap,” she said in a tweet.

Ngarewa-Packer told The Spinoff’s live updates that as an MP based on the ground in the region, she often hears of people’s situations quickly. “We’ve known for a couple of days where there are four potential positives,” she said. “It’s been drip fed into the community.”

Her agenda was to get “as many people tested and vaccinated” but she was concerned about communication from health officials “taking days”.

“The sooner we can get [health officials] to tell the community, the quicker we can mobilise people to get tested,” she said.

The Ministry of Health was “fixated” on the 1pm update but should change their approach to be “more agile and flexible in their comms”, she added. “It doesn’t make sense why they’re so stuck to a timeline that worked in 2020. They have to adjust. They’ve asked the rest of Aotearoa to adjust to red light… but what have they adjusted?”

The next official update is due, as usual, around 1pm. The Ministry of Health has been approached for comment.

Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

3.50pm update

A Ministry of Health spokesperson responded:

The Ministry of Health has been announcing the number of Covid-19 cases through its 1pm statement each day since March 2020.  The ministry has taken this approach so that the public has reliable, confirmed, well-contextualised and timely information about the Government’s Coivid-19 response from the health sector.

Each day, the Ministry reports cases who have tested positive in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight.

If a case returns a positive result outside of this timeframe, and there is a pressing public health need to release information about the case, the case will be announced in the 1pm statement, and then formally recorded in the case tally the next day – this approach was taken for the cases announced today who are isolating in South Taranaki.

It is important to note that public health units commence the management of cases – including interviewing them to identify contacts and exposure events – as soon as they notified – this process ensures that close contacts (who are at highest risk of exposure) are identified quickly.

As always, it is important that anybody with symptoms stays at home and gets tested – this advice is important regardless of whether there are known cases in the community, particularly now that omicron is in the community.

The ministry encourages DHBs to also work with their important stakeholders so they are aware in a timely way of any developments in their region – recognising the Ministry’s primary role in releasing this information.

And this, from Ashley Bloomfield:

Wordle sold to the New York Times for ‘seven figure’ sum

It’s time to say sorry (Image: Tina Tiller)

Wordle, the highly addictive online word game, has been bought by the New York Times.

In a tweet, the game’s Brooklyn-based software engineer Josh Wardle said the online puzzle will remain free to play for everyone and individual user’s streaks and stats will be saved.

“[The Times’] values are aligned with mine… and I’m thrilled that they will be stewards of the game moving forward,” wrote Wardle.

Wordle is a daily word game that allows players six attempts to guess a five-letter word. According to reports, the game was sold to the Times for an amount “in the low seven figures”.

Despite starting off with a relatively low profile, Wordle soon boomed on Twitter – thanks in part to its devoted New Zealand fanbase. It’s now played by millions of people from around the world.

Wardle thanked his New Zealand fans for supporting the game.

Read more: Those coloured boxes on Twitter are New Zealand’s fault

Robertson rejects recommendation to lift super age

Grant Robertson has delivered his first budget of the Labour-majority government. Photo: Mark Graham/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The OECD has warned New Zealand that it needs to raise the age for superannuation up from the current 65 in order to keep post-Covid debt under control.

But, the government has reiterated that it has no plans to do that. Finance minister Grant Robertson told Stuff he did not agree with every recommendation made by the OECD.

“It’s a strong policy commitment of the Labour Party to maintain our current age of eligibility for superannuation at 65,” he said. “While the spend as a percentage of GDP is relatively high compared to the rest of the world, it’s not out of kilter with a number of other countries who spend this amount of money,” he said.

The OECD’s 2022 economic survey said that fiscal measures taken during the Covid crisis had “substantially increased” the government debt-to-GDP ratio.

“The near-term economic outlook is positive,” said  OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann. “The New Zealand economy has recovered strongly from the pandemic. The need for policy action is pressing in a number of areas to make economic growth sustainable. For instance, helping the digital sector to grow would help boost labour productivity.”

Boris Johnson apologises, remains defiant, after scathing ‘partygate’ report

UXBRIDGE, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 17: Britain’s Prime Minster Boris Johnson speaks with members of the Metropolitan Police in their break room, as he makes a constituency visit to Uxbridge police station on December 17, 2021 in Uxbridge, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

British prime minister Boris Johnson has apologised to parliament after a damning report revealed “failures of leadership and judgement” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

The long-awaited Sue Gray report found that 16 gatherings took place when Covid restrictions should have prohibited them, with 12 now being investigated by police. They all took place in 10 Downing Street or the Cabinet office, apart from one.

Some of the events “should not have been allowed to take place”, said Gray, while others “should not have been allowed to develop as they did”.

Along with leadership failures, Gray pointed to a problematic drinking culture at parliament. “Excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time,” the report said.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Johnson apologised. He was “sorry for the things we simply did not get right and sorry for the way that this matter has been handled”.

He added: “I want to say to the people of this country, I know what the issue is. It is whether this government can be trusted to deliver. And I say, yes, we can be trusted.”

Despite calls, including from within his own party, Johnson has indicated he will not stand down as prime minister. In fact, since addressing a meeting of MPs, reports indicate wide support for Johnson from Conservative MPs despite the report’s scathing findings.

More from The Spinoff: A beginner’s guide to Boris Johnson’s partygate buffet from hell

The Fold: How Today FM will be different

As the director of news and talk at MediaWorks, Dallas Gurney is responsible for overseeing the launch of Today FM, the company’s new talk radio brand set to replace Magic Talk and, they hope, offer a viable alternative to talk radio giant Newstalk ZB. This week on The Fold, he joins Duncan Greive to talk about why MediaWorks decided to scrap Magic Talk, the long-term vision behind Today FM and the contentious ERA decision keeping Tova O’Brien off the air until mid-March.

Follow The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Pair of new polls show support for Ardern, Labour, waning

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

A pair of new polls over the weekend show support for Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party could be on the decline.

The prime minister’s own net approval rating has now dropped below that of National Party leader Christopher Luxon, according to the latest TVNZ poll. However, that was in part because a number of potential voters did not have an opinion on him yet.

The Kantar Public Poll revealed that while 52% approved of the way Jacinda Ardern was handling her job as prime minister, 37% disapproved and 11% did not know or refused to answer, giving the PM an overall approval rating of +15.

Luxon was sitting on +22 – seven points higher – but his actual approval rating was 10 points lower on 42%, with 20% disapproving and 37% who did not know.

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It’s the first time an opposition leader has scored higher than the prime minister in the TVNZ poll since it started asking for approval ratings in 2019. It’s also Ardern’s lowest approval rating.

Ardern said the “tough decisions” made during the pandemic would always have had an impact on polling. “It doesn’t change the decisions we’ve made, the importance of them and how well they’ve served New Zealand,” she said.

Luxon said: “I’m just trying…to be me and just do my job and my job is to lead the National Party, to get it playing as a team,” said Luxon.

Meanwhile, the overall centre-right bloc has had a boost of support in the latest Roy Morgan poll. Support for a National/Act government rose 6% up to 50%, while the Labour/Greens combination was down 2.5% to 44%.

‘It’s game on’: National leader’s message to his MPs

National Party leader Christopher Luxon and deputy leader Nicola Willis (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

National leader Christopher Luxon is trying to rebuild the party he’s been leading since late last year, and wants to prove to the public that he’ll be a viable prime minister come 2023.

The opposition is in Queenstown for the annual party retreat, a chance to regroup after a year when all eyes were on National – but not because they were doing well.

“We cannot be an old, crusty National Party,” Luxon told reporters yesterday. “What we have to demonstrate to the New Zealand people is we care deeply about them – we care deeply about education because that’s a kid’s shot at being able to make their Kiwi dream come to life.

“We care deeply about the vulnerable and the poor that are consigned to welfare for the rest of their lives, we have expectations of them, we want to be able to help them, we want targeted interventions to rise up and become independent.”

Luxon had a simple challenge to his MPs more than a year out from the next election: “It’s game on.”

He said the party had to do more than simply oppose the government, but present outcomes for New Zealanders. And the economy can’t be the only focus, either. “The economy, the society and our environment are all interlinked,” he said.

“We care deeply about people. That’s why we’re here.”