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‘A future with fewer restrictions is near’, says PM; Covid death toll rises

Hello and welcome to another Monday on The Spinoff’s live updates, it’s February 21. I’m Stewart Sowman-Lund. Want to get in touch? You can reach me on

The latest

blog feb 21

‘A future with fewer restrictions is near’, says PM; Covid death toll rises

Hello and welcome to another Monday on The Spinoff’s live updates, it’s February 21. I’m Stewart Sowman-Lund. Want to get in touch? You can reach me on

The latest

Feb 21 2022

John Oliver’s fixation with New Zealand continues

(Image / Last Week Tonight)

Trevor Mallard has had one of his wishes granted. No, the protesters haven’t left. Instead, his attempts to clear the grounds around parliament have been noticed by US comedian John Oliver.

In the latest episode of his late night show Last Week Tonight, Oliver briefly discussed the ongoing protest in a segment about the trucker convoy in Canada. He then turns to New Zealand, showing a clip from a CNN report discussing the use of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” to try and clear the protest. “Oh come on, New Zealand!” said Oliver. “Playing James Blunt or Barry Manilow clearly is not going to cut it here. You’re not going to move on people this angry with the actions of a bad wedding DJ.”

It’s not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, that Oliver has picked up on news from our fair land. In 2017, he tackled the Eminem lawsuit against the National Party. The year before, the saga of the Waitangi dildo went global after a segment on Oliver’s show.

(Image / Last Week Tonight)

Read more: John Oliver’s weird fixation on New Zealand: the complete works (so far)

Support for hospitality welcomed, but will it be enough?

(Image: Archi Banal)

While the Restaurant Association has welcomed the new financial support package for businesses hit by the omicron outbreak, another industry group, Hospitality NZ, says it’s not enough. 

In a statement, Hospitality NZ chief executive Julie White said the size of the new payment available to businesses (see 3.14pm update) was “concerning” compared with the scale of losses businesses have felt. 

“Right now, I have to say it looks like it will not be enough. Many will now close, or at best hibernate. Either way, it means job losses,” she said.

Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois, meanwhile, said the support would bring some “very welcome relief” and was confident it would be a “big help” to many small businesses.

However, both Bidois and White questioned the eligibility criteria – businesses must show a 40% revenue drop within the six weeks before the move to phase two – as for some, business never picked up after last year’s lockdown. Bidois said a 30% threshold would have been more appropriate to reflect the cumulative effect of revenue drop year on year.

Help on the way for businesses struggling under traffic light restrictions

Grant Robertson (Photo by Mark Mitchell – Pool/Getty Images)

A new Covid-19 support payment will be made available for businesses struggling during the omicron outbreak.

Speaking at parliament, finance minister Grant Robertson said the new payout will be $4,000 per business plus $400 per full-time employee (capped at 50 FTEs or $24,000). This is the same rate as the most recent transition payment.

“As I said back in October when we announced the traffic light system, the government has been monitoring the impact of the Covid Protection Framework on businesses and the economy,” Robertson said.

“With the settings of the framework most businesses can open and operate relatively normally, even at red. We can see that the majority of the economy is operating close to normal, but in some sectors, like hospitality and events, there has been a significant drop-off in business.”

To qualify for the payment, companies must show a 40% revenue drop on seven consecutive days within six weeks prior to the shift to phase two of the omicron response on February 15. “We have set a higher threshold in terms of revenue loss than previous support in order to target those most affected,” said Robertson.

Applications for the first payment open on February 28, with payments starting from March 1. It will be available on a fortnightly basis for six weeks. “This reflects the international experience that the peak of the omicron outbreak should pass after about six weeks,” said Robertson. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation and have the option to extend the payment if this if necessary.”

He added: “We believe that this will get people through the worst of the omicron outbreak.”

Changes were also being made to the small business cashflow loans scheme to increase the amount of funding available to eligible businesses through the introduction of a “top-up” loan. Businesses that have accessed a loan through the scheme will be able to draw down an additional $10,000, with a new repayment period of five years and the first two years being interest free.

“Cabinet has also agreed to remove the first two years of accrued base interest from all borrowers who have, or will, take out a loan under the scheme. This change will mean interest will only start accruing at the beginning of year three,” said Robertson.

Ardern teases ‘future with fewer restrictions’ – but not until after omicron peaks

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – JUNE 28: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 28, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand. The Wellington region is in alert level 2 until 11.59pm on Tuesday while the rest of the country is at level 1 following the emergence of new COVID-19 cases in New Zealand linked to a cluster outbreak in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Jacinda Ardern has teased a future without Covid-19 restrictions, but said it won’t come until after omicron cases have peaked.

Daily Covid numbers are expected to double every three to four days before hitting their peak in around six weeks’ time. “It’s likely that very soon we will all know people who have Covid or we will get it ourselves,” Ardern said. “There was a time when that was a scary prospect, but it doesn’t have to be now.”

One of the reasons for this is that New Zealand’s population is highly vaccinated, she said. “Because of vaccination rates, it will be a mild to moderate illness for most people. Public health measures will slow down the spread to ensure there is a hospital bed for every person who needs it.”

Ardern said the wave of cases is likely to peak in roughly mid to late March. “At that point, if we follow the pattern of other countries, we will likely see a rapid decline followed by cases stabilising.” Ardern said we can then look to loosen our traffic light restrictions.

The only substantial change to the Covid-19 Protection Framework will be the likely removal of the vaccine pass system as part of the move down through the traffic lights, said Ardern. These were always intended to be temporary. “We will see a narrowing of when we use mandates,” she later said.

There is no date yet for when these changes will kick in, but it will be “well beyond the peak” of the outbreak. “A future with fewer restrictions is near.”

Ardern finished her speech with a message to those occupying the lawns of parliament. “Everyone is over Covid. No one wants to live with rules or restrictions. But had we not all been willing to work together to protect one another, then we all would have been worse off as individuals, including losing people we love,” she said.

“That hasn’t happened here for the most part – and that is a fact worth celebrating, rather than protesting.

“We all want to go back to the way life was. And we will, I suspect sooner than you think. But when that happens, it will be because easing restrictions won’t compromise the lives of thousands of people – not because you demanded it.”

Now was not the time to “dismantle our hard work and preparation, to remove our armour just as the battle begins”, concluded the prime minister.

On the protest, Ardern was asked why she would not give a date for mandates to end in order to encourage protesters to leave parliament grounds. This would not happen until Covid case numbers had surged, she said.

Ardern said she did have confidence in police commissioner Andrew Coster, despite criticism that police should have acted sooner to curb the protest.

Jacinda Ardern leading ‘most divisive government in history’ – Luxon

Christopher Luxon (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Christopher Luxon has taken aim at the prime minister’s claim of leading a “team of five million”, instead saying she leads the “most divisive government in history”.

The opposition leader is giving a speech in Auckland this afternoon, which he says is aimed at healing the divide in society.

In a speech titled “a divided society”, Luxon said the government had pitted renters against landlords, businesses owners against workers – and the vaccinated against the unvaccinated. “What we are seeing outside parliament, and the reaction to it, is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time,” he said.

“It’s driven by Covid and vaccine mandates, yes, but the frustrations shared by many Kiwis are also driven by a Government that seems to be stalling.”

While Luxon admitted that some of the protesters had shown a “flagrant disregard for the law”, he said this behaviour had not been helped by a prime minister “missing in action”.

“It is simply not sufficient for the government to stand to one side while the protest rages, sheeting responsibility to the Police and ignoring the wider debates that fuel it,” he said.

On the topic of mandates, Luxon said it was now time for them to be phased out. “The way I think about it, mandates were justified for a while as a temporary measure as we battled Covid and lifted vaccination rates,” he said.

“The public health rationale for mandates is much less than it was just a few months ago. And it doesn’t make you an anti-vaxxer to point this out.”

Luxon said mandates should be progressively removed, starting with vaccination requirements for border workers, vaccine pass requirements for children’s sport and vaccine pass requirements for hospitality businesses. But, he continued to back mandates for healthcare workers. “You want people dealing with Covid in our hospitals to be vaccinated,” he said.

Watch below

Justin Giovannetti: More cops, more concrete, more confusion

Photo: Justin Gioavennetti

There’s a marked shift in the vibe around parliament after police moved in this morning to surround the growing protest site and put a concrete limit on its size. In this case literally, by encircling the entire site in concrete blocks.

It’s a sign of the growing permanence of the protest that police decided the streets around parliament won’t be returning to regular traffic for some time. The dawn operation to install the blocks saw poop throwing, seven injured police officers and eight arrests. A few hours later, tensions were down to a low simmer. After a week where police were nearly invisible, they are now maintaining a permanent presence across downtown Wellington.

Following days of complaints from residents of the capital that they faced intimidation and anger, police stood around the borders of the protest as a sign of reassurance. Walking around the protest this morning, with mask on, police officers nodded at me and waved. The message was clear: We’re here for you. Standing on either side of concrete barriers now blocking Lambton Quay, a police officer was in the middle of a full debate with a protester. “I respect what you’re trying to do, but staying here longer won’t achieve anything,” she said. The protester seemed unimpressed.

The concrete blocks were a clear setback to the occupation and a sign that things won’t last forever. On the forecourt of parliament, a Canadian flag put up at the start of the protest to mark solidarity with an earlier convoy was lowered to half-mast by protesters. The occupation in Ottawa was cleared by police over the weekend.

Photo: Justin Gioavennetti

Protesters who threw ‘human waste’ at police threatened with prison time

Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images

Police say they will hold to account protesters who threw human waste at officers – and have threatened prison time for anyone found responsible.

Eight people were arrested this morning during an operation where police installed concrete barriers around the protest area at parliament. During this, seven officers sustained minor injuries and officers had waste from a portaloo thrown at them.

“Deliberately infecting someone with disease is a serious offence punishable by 14 years imprisonment,” said a police spokesperson. “Likewise attempting to do so attracts a significant penalty.”

Anyone abusing or intimidating members of the public can also expect to be arrested, removed and face charges, said police.

Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images

Covid-19 update: Two deaths, 2,365 new cases

Image: Toby Morris

New Zealand’s Covid-19 death toll has risen by two – the first deaths since the omicron outbreak began.

The first reported death is a patient at Middlemore Hospital. No further details, including the age of the individual, have been released. The second death is a patient in their 70s at Auckland City Hospital who was recently diagnosed with Covid-19.

There are 2,365 new community cases of Covid-19 today, a drop on yesterday’s high, while hospitalisations have risen to 116. One person is in intensive care.

Auckland remains the epicentre of the omicron outbreak with 1,692 new cases. Other new cases are in Northland (50), Waikato (136), Bay of Plenty (42), Lakes (24), Hawke’s Bay (23), MidCentral (14), Whanganui (5), Taranaki (4), Tairāwhiti (9), Wairarapa (8), Capital and Coast (89), Hutt Valley (19), Nelson Marlborough (58), Canterbury (105), South Canterbury (1) and the Southern DHB (86).

Just 12 new cases were detected at the border.

Today marks the first day that rapid antigen tests are available to those in Auckland seeking a Covid-19 test at a community testing centre. The site will determine which test (PCR or a rapid antigen test) is best for you, based on preset criteria.

“Access to rapid antigen tests will be expanded further during the coming week,” said the Ministry of Health. “At this time, please do not visit your GP for a RAT test or call them for guidance on RAT eligibility at Community Testing Centres. We will be providing further updates on the rollout throughout this week.”

The ministry said the availability of rapid tests will be further increased when New Zealand moves to phase three of the omicron response.

As demand for testing has grown, some Covid-19 test results for Auckland and Waikato are currently taking longer to process at laboratories. “The use of rapid antigen testing, alongside PCR testing, will improve this process at a time of exceptional demand in phase two, provided the Community Testing Centre queues are freely available for those who really need a test,” added the ministry.

There were 27,109 tests administered yesterday and 7.3 million rapid tests are currently in the country.

Finally, on the vaccine front: more than 2.1 million booster shots have now been given nationally – with more than 15,000 administered on Sunday.

For more: Visit The Spinoff’s Covid-19 Tracker page here.

Image: Toby Morris

‘At least’ five police at Wellington protest test positive for Covid-19

Protesters resist police after refusing to leave parliament grounds during the third day of demonstrations against Covid restrictions in Wellington on February 10, 2022 (Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

Covid-19 has made it to the outskirts of the protest at parliament, with reports five police officers present have tested positive.

While little detail is known, Stuff has reported that “at least” five officers have contracted the virus as of last night. That will be of concern considering a new survey this morning showed that over 75% of those protesting outside parliament have not been vaccinated.

Daily Covid numbers hit new heights over the weekend with more than 2,500 new community cases reported yesterday.

Christopher Luxon blames Labour for ‘increasing divisions’ in society

National MP Christopher Luxon (Photo: Getty Images)

National’s leader Christopher Luxon will address the nation today in a speech he said will answer “how we heal the chasm of division that has opened up in New Zealand”.

The weekend saw a noticeable change in rhetoric from the opposition in regards to the occupation of parliament. First, Act’s David Seymour said vaccination rates were making “little difference” to infection rates during the omicron outbreak and argued it was time to ditch mandates. He used the word “segregation” – a move described by Covid minister Chris Hipkins as a “dog-whistle to anti-vaxxers”.

Then, Luxon said the government needed to take responsibility for the escalating protest. “This is a situation entirely of the government’s own making,” he said.

Luxon said he is “deeply concerned” by increasing divisions created “by the Labour government”.

He’s set to speak at 2.30pm and we’ll bring you a livestream.

National MP Christopher Luxon
National MP Christopher Luxon (Photo: Getty Images)

How the Wellington protest might end

From today’s edition of The Bulletin:

One of the largest law enforcement operations in Canadian history is near its end as police finish arresting stragglers at the protest that gave rise to Wellington’s occupation. Ottawa saw thousands of police, with mounted officers and others in riot gear clearing encampments over the weekend. The main leaders have been arrested and face criminal charges, as do any parents who brought children to the protest. Anti-terror laws were used the seize the bank accounts of those who participated and police have promised to hunt down any protesters who left in the final days. They face over a year in jail and fines over $100,000. My former colleague in Ottawa Marieke Walsh told Q+A about the situation. The programme also spoke with New Zealand police commissioner Andrew Coster about why he won’t do the same thing here. For now.

Want to read The Bulletin in full? Click here to subscribe and join over 36,000 New Zealanders who start each weekday with the biggest stories in politics, business, media and culture. 

The Queen has caught Covid-19

Queen Elizabeth II and NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern at Buckingham Palace in 2018 (Photo: Victoria Jones – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Queen has become the latest royal to test positive for Covid-19.

Buckingham Palace said the monarch has “mild cold-like symptoms” but will likely continue with light duties.

It follows Prince Charles testing positive earlier in the month. According to the BBC, a “number of people” at Windsor Castle have now contracted Covid-19.

The Queen will continue to receive medical treatment and follow appropriate health guidelines, a statement from the Palace said.

New survey: A third of parliament protesters backed Labour at 2020 election

Protesters pack into the grounds of Parliament on the fifth day of demonstrations against Covid-19 restrictions in Wellington on February 12, 2022, inspired by a similar demonstration in Canada. (Photo by Marty MELVILLE / AFP) (Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

Around 30% of the protesters outside parliament voted for the Labour Party at the last election.

A new Curia Research survey commissioned by The Platform has revealed the political breakdown of those occupying parliament grounds. Along with 29.8% backing Labour in 2020, roughly 16% of surveyed protesters identified as Green voters, while 15.9% voted National and 11.9% voted Act. That means the Greens over-performed when compared to their election night result of 7.86%.

When compared with election night, there is significantly higher support for fringe parties among the protesters. For example, 7.5% voted for Advance NZ – the Jami-Lee Ross and Billy TK fronted party that promulgated conspiracy theories. 8.7% said they voted for the New Conservatives. On both of these results, the parties would have made it to parliament.

Meanwhile, of the five parties in parliament, the most over-represented among the protesters was the Māori Party. It has three times greater supporter amongst protesters than in the election – 3.6%.

The ethnic breakdown of protesters revealed 27.2% are Māori while 64.4% are New Zealand European.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 76.9% of those surveyed said they were unvaccinated, while 13.8% were double vaxxed and almost 3% had received a booster.

The Platform surveyed 312 of the roughly 1,000 protesters outside parliament.

View the full survey results here

‘Time to go home’: Ardern’s message to protesters as occupation reaches day 14

Jacinda Ardern in August last year (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A simple message from the prime minister to those outside parliament: “The protesters have had their say. It is time they go home.”

Today is the 14th day of protest action around the Beehive, with numbers of those in occupation reportedly swelling over the weekend.

Speaking to RNZ, Jacinda Ardern refused to comment on the action taken so far by police. “The law is very clear on this… the government cannot and should not ever instruct the police how to enforce the law,” she said.

However, while Ardern said she “absolutely” supported the police, she added: That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with every single decision that they’ll make, but they will always have my support.” The prime minister did not expand on whether this meant she had disagreed with any action taken so far.

“Ultimately all of this would be resolved if simply people went home,” she said. “What we don’t want to see is people continue to join.”

Meanwhile, the prime minister hinted to TVNZ’s Breakfast that an update on the mandate timeline could be provided today. Ardern said she will today be talking a little bit more about “what it will look like when we get through this omicron wave” at today’s post-cabinet press conference. “I want to be clear, these messages are for all New Zealanders, not as a result of what we’ve seen on the lawn outside today,” she said.

Parliament protest: police spend night blocking off streets

Tents of demonstrators outside the Parliament building in Wellington, New Zealand, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. The protest against vaccine mandates in front of New Zealand’s parliament, now in its 11th day, has grown in size and shows no signs of abating, posing a headache for authorities just as the country’s omicron outbreak begins to surge. Photographer: Birgit Krippner/Bloomberg

Police in Wellington say they’ve contained protest activity after installing hard concrete barriers around the CBD overnight.

The operation, which involved around 300 staff, began at 3.30am this morning. A “handful” of protesters were arrested but police said they were able to install the barriers with “minimal disruption”.

The barricade will enable police to stop the number of vehicles growing within the area of the protest and to maintain access for residents, businesses and emergency vehicles. The road blocks will each have officers on guard, meaning access to the protest grounds will only be for “legitimate” vehicles.

Protesters will be allowed to remove their vehicles from the area but will not be able to go back in once they have left.

Police have warned commuters to allow extra time for travel as road closures and detours have been put in place. “We will continue to maintain a highly visible, reassurance presence on site, and staff are engaging with the public and protestors to provide advice and, where necessary, take enforcement action,” said a police spokesperson. “Anyone abusing or intimidating members of the public can expect to be arrested, removed and face charges.”

Today marks day 14 of the occupation on parliament grounds.