blog feb 3

Live UpdatesFeb 3 2022

147 new community cases; border reopening to begin February 27

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for February 3, I’m Stewart Sowman-Lund. Get in touch with me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz or on Twitter.

 

Want to help support the live updates? Click here to learn more about The Spinoff Members.


Today’s headlines

Feb 3 2022

The shape of the outbreak

New Covid-19 infections were steady today – but the number of hospitalisations related to the pandemic more than doubled overnight.

Here’s how the outbreak’s looking, thanks to The Spinoff’s Covid Tracker page.

Major Wellington festival scaled down due to Covid restrictions

The New Zealand Festival of the Arts has announced it will hold a reduced programme this year so that it can safely operate under the country’s red traffic light setting.

That has meant the cancellation of several larger events planned for Wellington across February and March.

The festival’s executive director Meg Williams said, “Given the current situation, we need to be prepared that Aotearoa will be at red for the festival period (from 21 February) so the only viable option is to adapt now.”

The programme will retain free, whānau-friendly outdoor art and visual arts exhibitions in the Wellington region, said Williams, and include a series of livestreams and recordings that can be accessed anywhere.  

“We share the sadness felt by many of our performing artists and practitioners who are no longer able to bring their work to audiences on stage at the Festival as planned – we will ensure we find ways to honour them. Our thoughts are with them and the many other artists and event workers who are being seriously impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.”

Events that have been cancelled include Avantdale Bowling Club at the TSB Bank Arena, and performances of The Haka Party Incident at the Opera House.

More details of the updated schedule will be made available in a week’s time.

147 new community Covid-19 cases; hospitalisations rise

There are 147 new community cases of Covid-19 today, with Auckland still the epicentre of the outbreak.

New cases have also been recorded in Northland, Waikato, Lakes, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Capital and Coast. All cases are being treated as the omicron variant with the Ministry of Health saying it is now the dominant strain of the virus.

Another 44 cases – also presumed to be omicron – have been detected at the border.

Hospitalisations have more than doubled since yesterday, with 13 people (up from six) now being treated for Covid-19. There is nobody in intensive care with Covid-19.

The Ministry of Health has warned travellers heading away for the upcoming Waitangi long weekend to be cautious.

“If you are going away this Waitangi weekend, please have plans in place in the event you are identified as a close contact, get Covid-19 symptoms, or find out you have Covid-19,” said the ministry. “You are likely to need to self-isolate wherever you become a close contact or test positive, so there may be extra costs involved in paying for accommodation and changing your travel plans.”

There are limited alternative accommodation options for those who are unable to safely isolate in their own homes, said the ministry. “Or, if they have travelled elsewhere, and as case numbers rise, the accommodation will be focused on those with high needs.”

Today’s case details

There are 90 cases to report in Auckland today, with the city remaining the epicentre of the community outbreak. Health officials are supporting 1,534 people in the region to isolate at home, including 568 cases.

In Northland, another 14 new cases have been confirmed, across Kerikeri, Kaitaia, and Whangārei. Of these cases, nine are linked to existing cases and investigations are underway to determine links for two cases.

“The three remaining cases reside in Northland, though were originally allocated as Auckland cases, and are being transferred for management to the Northland public health unit,” said the ministry. Of these cases, two are linked and one is yet to be connected to the outbreak.

There are 15 cases to report in the Waikato. Case investigations so far have determined most of these cases are linked to previously reported cases.

The ministry’s reporting nine new cases in the Lakes district, with eight linked to existing cases and one yet to be connected to the outbreak with investigations underway. Eight of today’s cases are in the Rotorua district and one is in the Taupō district.

Eight new cases have been confirmed in the Bay of Plenty today, with seven linked to existing cases and one yet to connected to the outbreak. Of these eight cases, five are in Tauranga, one is in the Western Bay of Plenty, and two are in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

There are seven new cases in Hawke’s Bay. Of these cases, five are linked to existing cases and, at this stage, the remaining two are yet to be connected to the outbreak with investigations underway.

Finally, there are four new cases in the Wellington region, with three linked to existing cases and the fourth with links yet to be established. Of these four cases, two are in Wellington and two are in Porirua.

Michael Plank: Phased border reopening will help mitigate risks from omicron

The government’s plans for a phased reopening of the border seem reasonable, University of Canterbury professor Michael Plank said.

Plank has been one of the most vocal science experts throughout the pandemic. He told the Science Media Centre that by staggering the dates in which we reconnect with other countries, we can mitigate against the risk of omicron overwhelming us from the border.

Michael Plank’s comments in full:

At the moment, MIQ is intercepting a large number of cases of Covid-19 at the border, preventing repeated re-introductions of Omicron into the community. This is helping us to slow the spread of omicron by allowing our contact tracing system to function more effectively and buying time for more people to get boosted. High booster coverage will be crucial to avoid overloading our healthcare system.

Once the omicron outbreak really takes off, border cases will start to make less of a difference relative to the expected large number of community cases. One of the concerns with re-opening the border is that our current average of 50 border cases per day could easily turn into 500 cases a day if travel restrictions were removed completely and the number of arrivals sharply increased. The staged re-opening means that travel numbers will increase progressively rather than in one big jump, which mitigates against this risk.

The timeframe for the first re-opening step on 27 February looks reasonable. By that time, it is likely that daily case numbers will be in the thousands and the vast majority of vaccinated adults will be eligible for their booster. Self-isolation and testing requirements for arrivals will dampen the effect of border cases on community transmission, while removing the bottleneck of MIQ and allowing us to monitor for possible new variants.

Westport residents urged to evacuate as more rain predicted

More rain is predicted for the wild-weather-hit West Coast, with Civil Defence urging Westport residents to evacuate to friends and families outside of the region if possible.

 

State Highway 6 in South Westland will remain closed until at least 6pm after heavy rain caused several slips, cut power, phones and internet and closed schools, reports Stuff, but there were no significant reports of damage.

The Buller district to the north of Westland is now expected to see the worst of the weather.

“MetService have advised that there is more rain to come for this area,” Civil Defence West Coast group controller Te Aroha Cook told Newshub. “We are working closely with the Buller Emergency Operations Centre to assist where we can,” Cook said.

Buller mayor Jamie Cleine declared a state of emergency for his district yesterday afternoon.

Travellers who breach self-isolation will be fined up to $12,000

Those who breach self-isolation requirements as MIQ is phased out will be fined between $4,000 and $12,000, says the prime minister.

When you move to self-isolation it does have a high level of personal responsibility involved,” said Jacinda Ardern in a press conference following the border reopening announcement this morning.

“There are fines attached – anywhere between $4,000 and $12,000 if you breach self-isolation requirements – but we have made the decision to move to this phase at a time when New Zealand will be in a better position to deal with those who may breach the requirements that are in place.”

Meanwhile, Ardern said there was no set timeline for when unvaccinated travellers might be able to bypass MIQ. “It is still such a critical factor as to whether or not you are likely a) to get Covid and b) likely to become hospitalised or seriously unwell,” she said. “It remains very important  for us to reduce that risk to ourselves and the traveller.”

‘These are very firm dates’: PM rules out changing February 27 reopening plan

The prime minister has all but ruled out pushing back the planned reopening of New Zealander’s border.

An earlier reopening plan at the end of last year was scrapped due to the spread of omicron overseas, but, speaking to media after her reopening announcement this morning, Jacinda Ardern said, “These are very firm dates. New Zealanders from Australia are coming home on the 27th of February.”

New Zealanders in Australia have been chosen to be part of phase one because the trans-Tasman “relationship is important to us”, said Ardern. It’s also “close to home”, and despite high rates of omicron in the community there, “we’re seeing a slightly lesser rate of omicron in arrivals [from Australia] because of pre-departure testing there”.

Ardern reiterated that the planned opening for travellers who don’t need visas was likely to be brought forward from July. “We’ve clearly signalled we do expect that we will keep under constant review the ability of those who don’t require visas to come into New Zealand as tourists. We’ve said we expect that to be no later than July but that’s very likely to be moved forward.”

Jacinda Ardern’s border reopening speech, in full

Jacinda Ardern has just wrapped up a speech in which she outlined the five step plan for reopening the border.

You can read my quick recap here or indulge yourself with the full 3,000 word speech published in full here.

Jacinda Ardern wore a respirator mask to announce the move to the red setting on Sunday (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PM to lead four overseas trade delegations this year

With the reopening of our border, Jacinda Ardern has confirmed she will make her first major overseas trips since the pandemic began.

Speaking in Auckland, the prime minister announced she would lead trade delegations and trade-supporting visits into four key markets this year – Australia, Asia, the United States and Europe.

“Our exporters have worked hard during the pandemic, achieving some incredible results and returns,” said Ardern. “I am proud of the contribution that we made to the air freight subsidy scheme that has kept planes flying in and out of New Zealand. I am equally proud that we have secured a free trade agreement with the UK at a crucial time in our Covid recovery. And as we scale up the movement of our people, the physical support of our exporters will only grow.”

The end of MIQ: Staggered border reopening to begin on February 28

Managed isolation will be phased out and New Zealanders overseas will be able to more easily return home, starting from this month.

The government has outlined its latest proposal for reconnecting us with the world: a five-step plan that will see the borders reopen to New Zealanders and some critical workers in Australia from February 27, with other countries to follow two weeks later.

Plans for a staggered reopening starting last month were put on ice on account of the rise of the omicron variant, so the government will be hoping no further delays are needed. Stuff reports ministers will be reviewing the plan on February 20.

Here are the key dates announced:

  • 11.59pm, February 27: Reopen to New Zealanders and other eligible travellers under current border settings (eg people with border exceptions) from Australia.
  • 11.59pm, March 13: Reopen to New Zealanders and other eligible travellers under current border settings from the rest of the world. Open to skilled workers earning at least 1.5 times the median wage. Open to Working Holiday Scheme visas.
  • 11.59pm, April 12: Open to current offshore temporary visa holders, who can still meet the relevant visa requirements. Open to up to 5,000 international students for semester two. Further class exceptions for critical workforces that do not meet the 1.5 times the median wage test will be considered.
  • By July: Open to anyone from Australia. Open for visa-waiver travel. The Accredited Employer Work Visa will open, meaning the skilled and health worker border exception can be phased out.
  • October: Border fully reopens to visitors from anywhere in the world, and all visa categories fully reopen.

At steps one and two, arrivals who wish to skip MIQ will need to be vaccinated and spend 10 days self-isolating at home (this will drop to seven days when we move to phase two of the pandemic plan as cases rise). “Isolation requirements will be kept under constant review, and we do expect them to reduce,” said Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins. “The reopening to visa-free tourists is also likely to be brought forward, with July being the latest date we anticipate this happening.”

Managed isolation will remain for unvaccinated travellers.

All arrivals will be provided three rapid antigen tests at the airport: one for use on day 0/1, and one for use on day 5/6, with one extra for backup. “This approach means we will continue to identify cases that enter though the border and limit their wider contact with the community,” said Hipkins. “In addition we will continue to whole genome sequence all returnees who test positive to rapidly identify and respond to new variants.”

Steps three to five are about “addressing skills and labour shortages”, added immigration minister Kris Faafoi, and accelerating our economic recovery.

Speaking in Auckland today, prime minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the anguish of MIQ. “It’s easy to hear the word MIQ and immediately associate it with heartache. There is no question that for New Zealand, it has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic. But the reason that it is right up there as one of the toughest things we have experienced is in part because large-scale loss of life is not.

“The anguish of MIQ has been real, and heartbreaking. But the choice to use it undeniably saved lives,” she added. “MIQ meant not everyone could come home when they wanted to. But it also meant that Covid could not come in when it wanted to, either.”

With the end of MIQ for the vast majority of travellers, the Defence Force would begin the process of withdrawing, Ardern said, “with some hotels returning to traditional use to support the return of our tourists. A core quarantine capacity will be maintained that can be scaled up as required, which will form the basis of a future National Quarantine Service. More on this in the future.”

The decision to stagger the reopening, as opposed to simply opening the borders all at once, was based on public health advice, said Ardern. “To give time for our systems to adjust for the likelihood of more cases in our community, and for our border systems to keep scaling up in the safest way possible.”

She acknowledged that while some would celebrate today’s announcement, for others it would cause anxiety. “But here are the safeguards: we will be as boosted as possible at the end of February, the phasing reduces the risk of a surge in cases, and travellers will be testing and isolating, with MIQ remaining for the unvaccinated. This means we will know quickly if a traveller has the virus including any new variants.”

Ardern said the need for and value of self-isolation would be monitored. “The strong advice from our public health officials is that we still need it to manage our way through omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case.”

Watch live: PM to announce border reopening date

We’re standing by for an announcement from Jacinda Ardern on when New Zealand will be reconnected with the rest of the world.

The prime minister is set to reveal our border reopening date around 11am, during a speech in the Auckland suburb of Newmarket. She’ll be joined by representatives from the business community.

I’m at the announcement and will have a full write-up, with all the details, shortly after 11.

Watch live:

Change to ‘active contact’ metric

An interesting detail in the latest Covid update from the Ministry of Health: the “active contacts being managed” number, which has been steadily climbing over recent weeks alongside case numbers, took an abrupt drop, down overnight from 9,280 to 5,796. Why? Because contact tracers have changed the definition of actively manage contact, the ministry told the Spinoff.

The number now includes only those whose potential exposure to Covid was in the last 10 days, rather than 14.  “Yesterday’s large fall in numbers follows this work which will enable more consistently accurate and up-to-date figures to be reported,” said a spokesperson.

Contact tracers will come under increasing pressure as case numbers grow. Under "phase two", the isolation period will drop from 10 days to seven, and the criteria for "active contacts" will shrink.

Concerns proposed income insurance scheme could embed existing inequalities

The Child Poverty Action Group has expressed concern over plans for an income insurance scheme.

Public consultation opened yesterday on the government’s proposal to supplement people’s income if they are made redundant or lose their job for certain health-related reasons. While opposition parties were also critical, the scheme has support from unions and the business community, along with government.

But CPAG’s social security spokesperson Mike O’Brien said it could bake-in existing inequalities in New Zealand. “Those who stand to benefit most… are those who are in regular, full-time, well-paid work, without dependent children,” said O’Brien. “Those who are in precarious, part-time, irregular and low-paid work – disproportionately Māori, Pacific and/or women, particularly caregivers – will either qualify for a low rate of payment under a social insurance scheme, or will not be eligible at all.”

It’s a similar concern to that expressed by the Greens. The party’s social development spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said yesterday that the government’s plan risked embedding a two-tiered system. “The government’s proposed income insurance scheme is not equitable enough to support people based on their needs,” he said.

Read more in The Bulletin: A new social welfare net for New Zealanders

PM to reveal border reopening: five stage plan expected

Today is all about the border, with prime minister Jacinda Ardern poised to reveal when it will reopen to New Zealanders stuck overseas.

Stuff’s reported that a five stage plan will be announced today, beginning with New Zealanders and critical workers in Australia being able to bypass managed isolation from February 27.

Then, in mid-March, New Zealanders from around the world will be able to come home as well.

Returnees will need to be vaccinated and spend time self-isolating at home instead of in a government-run hotel.

Further stages in the reopening plan will see non-citizens with visas, such as international students, able to return home from April while non-citizens from visa waiver countries – including Australia and the UK – able to enter the country from July.

It’s a similar plan to what was announced before the new Covid-19 strain was discovered, but delayed by around a month. Originally, trans-Tasman travel was planned to resume in January with New Zealand reopening to the world this month.

According to Stuff, the dates being announced today could still be changed and will be reviewed in late February.

The Spinoff’s live updates will be in attendance at Ardern’s speech which is scheduled for 11am in inner-city Auckland. The event is being held in conjunction with Business NZ, suggesting business support for whatever is being announced.