blog march 23

Live UpdatesMar 23 2022

Most mandates ditched, vaccine passes and outdoor gathering limits scrapped

Good morning and welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for March 23, I’m Stewart Sowman-Lund. Get in touch with me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz


Today’s top stories

  • A lot of changes have been made to our Covid-19 restrictions. Most mandates will be dumped, vaccine passes will soon not be required, and gathering limits are set to be removed for outdoor events. You can read a summarised version of all the announcements here.
  • There have been another 11 Covid-related deaths. Our death toll now sits at 210.
  • Covid hospitalisations have dropped down below 1,000 to 960, with 31 now in intensive care. Over 20,000 new community cases have been announced. The key numbers can found here.
  • The deputy prime minister Grant Robertson has laid out his priorities for the upcoming financial year, signalling a challenging 12 months ahead. Read my wrap of this morning’s finance minister breakfast here (along with an important food review).
blog march 23

Most mandates ditched, vaccine passes and outdoor gathering limits scrapped

Good morning and welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for March 23, I’m Stewart Sowman-Lund. Get in touch with me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz


Today’s top stories

  • A lot of changes have been made to our Covid-19 restrictions. Most mandates will be dumped, vaccine passes will soon not be required, and gathering limits are set to be removed for outdoor events. You can read a summarised version of all the announcements here.
  • There have been another 11 Covid-related deaths. Our death toll now sits at 210.
  • Covid hospitalisations have dropped down below 1,000 to 960, with 31 now in intensive care. Over 20,000 new community cases have been announced. The key numbers can found here.
  • The deputy prime minister Grant Robertson has laid out his priorities for the upcoming financial year, signalling a challenging 12 months ahead. Read my wrap of this morning’s finance minister breakfast here (along with an important food review).
Mar 23 2022

Experts respond to today’s changes to traffic light system

Covid experts have responded to major changes to the Covid-19 Protection Framework announced today with caution. “I am disappointed with parts of the announcement today,” said microbiologist and science communicator Siouxsie Wiles in comments via the Science Media Centre. “There was a lot of talk of things being safer now Auckland is coming out of this omicron peak, but safer for who? Certainly not everybody.”

Echoing a blog post published by University of Otago public health experts on Monday, Wiles said she would have liked to see the vaccine pass system retained and upgraded to include the booster dose. She also said the removal of vaccine mandates in education, particularly for those working with children not yet old enough to be vaccinated, made her “very nervous”.

Emily Harvey from Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa, meanwhile, said increasing capacity limits for indoor events, with no ventilation or air quality requirements, would “increase the potential risks”. Her colleague Dion O’Neale said the main risk in changing the traffic light settings was “the message it might send that things have become safer, when in fact case numbers and hence infection risk are still high”.

Michael Plank of Te Pūnaha Matatini said allowing unvaccinated people into places like cafes and bars wouldn’t substantially alter the risk of catching Covid there, but there was still a difficult journey ahead. “At least as many people will be infected on the way down the mountain as on the way up, and pressure on our healthcare system is likely to remain high. Keeping mask rules is crucial to limit transmission.” He also suggested a “test-to-release” requirement at the end of the seven-day isolation period for people who test positive, to reduce the risk of them going back into the community while still infectious.

Andrew Chen, research fellow at the University of Auckland’s Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, said while removing the requirement for people to scan as they enter venues was understandable, removing the requirement for businesses to display QR codes was “a little disappointing”. “The compliance cost of having QR code posters printed out is not that high, and I believe it is important for individuals to continue to have the option to scan the QR code if they want to.

“The prime minister indicated that if there was a new variant or a different type of outbreak that they may call for people to scan QR codes again – leaving the infrastructure in place, including having QR codes available for scanning, is critical to supporting a fast response.”

People queue for Costco memberships months ahead of NZ store opening

Hundreds of people have already signed up for a Costco NZ membership, months ahead of the first store opening in Auckland’s Westgate.

Memberships for the subscriber-only wholesale store, which cost $60, first became available on Monday. They are only available in person at Costco’s temporary office at 15 Kakano Road, Westgate.

A spokesperson for the store said about 600 people have already signed up and people were queuing each day to get a membership pass. It’s anticipated that the Westgate shop won’t be open for customers until August or September, but the Costco petrol station will open in the coming weeks (as The Spinoff’s unofficial petrol correspondent, this is very exciting).

One of those to already sign up for a Costco membership was former IRL writer for The Spinoff, Dylan Reeve. He waited about 90 minutes today for his membership but said the process was smooth. “Pick-up a form from staff when you arrive, then wait. ID and proof of address are needed,” he told me.

Reeve said no products were available at the temporary office, but some are on display. “No purchases or I’d have walked away with at least the Dr Pepper.”

Costco stock on display (Photo / supplied)

After two horror years, the film festival is returning

Blighted by Covid, a failed attempt at moving online, a scrapped Auckland festival and a director who quit in the middle of last year’s season, the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival says it has secured funding to return this year with “a more focused version”. That means fewer films will screen at this year’s event.

The NZIFF, which runs in 13 centres around the country, today confirmed it would play up to 60 films across July and August at this year’s festival, a number that’s usually closer to 100. In Auckland, cinema-goers may get the chance to see a selection of last year’s films that didn’t screen because Covid-enforced lockdowns shuttered cinemas.

A press release issued today stated the festival had secured funding from Manatū Taonga: Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga: New Zealand Film Commission to allow it to continue. “MCH’s Cultural Sector Emergency Relief Fund provides us with confidence to be able to go ahead with the film festival this year,” says New Zealand Film Festival Trust chair Catherine Fitzgerald.

It follows two tumultuous years for NZIFF, with a failed pivot to online in 2020 that was scrapped for last year’s festival, only for Covid-19 lockdowns to force the cancellation of Auckland and Hamilton’s festivals. To make matters worse, directer Maarten Rabarts stepped down in November after two years in the role, as the festival was still screening in some parts of the country.

“We’re taking a responsible approach to reduce financial risk and utilise the resources available while continuing to support the cinema industry with a focus on the in-cinema experience, deliver the highest quality experience to our audiences, and maximise the opportunities to provide a solid base on which we can build for 2023,” Fitzgerald said. “We know our loyal film festival fans will be very pleased to hear this news today.”

Covid-19 latest: 11 deaths, drop in hospitalisations, over 20,000 new cases

New Zealand’s Covid-19 death toll continues to rise steadily, with another 11 Covid casualties reported today. There have now been 210 people die with Covid-19 and the seven-day rolling average of reported deaths is nine.

Of the 11 people who have died, two are from Northland, five are from the Auckland region, one is from Bay of Plenty and three from the Wellington region. One of these people was in their 30s, one in their 60s, one in their 70s, four people were in their 80s and four people in their 90s.

Six were men and five were women.

The number of hospitalisations has dropped down below 1,000 to 960, with 31 now in intensive care.

Many of the hospitalisations are in the Auckland region, despite falling case numbers. Today there are 158 people in North Shore hospital, 217 in Middlemore and 201 in Auckland.


There are 20,087 new community cases today. Of those, 4,122 are in Auckland while nearly 3,500 are in Canterbury and around 1,700 are in the Waikato region.

On vaccines, 2,559,899 people have now received their booster dose – 72.8% of those eligible. “Getting boosted continues to be one of the most important ways people can protect themselves from omicron and severe illness,” said the Ministry of Health in its daily statement. “Please if you are due a vaccination, whether it be a second shot or booster, make an appointment today.”

Hospo groups say ‘seated and separated’ rule must go

Hospitality industry groups are criticising the government’s decision not to remove the “seated and separated” rule in changes to the Covid-19 Protection Framework announced today.

Among a raft of changes, the prime minister announced that as of this weekend, the indoor gathering limit will double from 100 to 200. “It is the view of our public health officials that we can safely increase these gathering limits indoors to 200 without having a significant impact on our health system and hospitalisations, especially given we will maintain our seated and separated rules for hospitality,” said Jacinda Ardern in a press conference this morning.

While welcoming the removal of vaccine mandates and the vaccine pass system, as well as the increase to capacity limits, the Restaurant Association said the seated and separated rule – which means tables must be at least one metre apart and only table service is allowed – was a “major issue” for the industry.

“The increase of limits to 200 while the seated and separated rule remains will have little to no impact on our small and medium-sized businesses which make up the majority of the industry,” said Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois in a statement.

Hospitality New Zealand, meanwhile, said the seated rule meant increasing the capacity limit to 200 was “a waste of time”. “Why 200? It’s nonsensical. The cap should be pinned to the capacity of the venue. Lifting it will not work for bars and other night venues. The seated model does not work for them, even with a higher cap.”

Covid restriction changes: How the opposition parties reacted

There’s been a mixed reception to today’s Covid announcements from across the political spectrum. Those on the right of parliament, both National and Act, are generally supportive – but they believe the changes have been too slow. In contrast, the Greens criticised the dropping of restrictions and said it would disproportionately impact our most vulnerable.

Here’s a quick wrap of the reaction so far:

National

The National Party welcomed the decision to drop many of the Covid-19 restrictions currently in place. “The government has finally caught up with reality, which is that omicron has changed the game and the tools that worked against delta are now putting unjustified limits on people’s lives and sowing division and discrimination,” said the party’s Covid response spokesperson Chris Bishop.

However, National has called for a replacement framework and questioned the relevancy of the traffic light system. “The government would be better to ditch the whole thing and create some simple rules around masks and perhaps venue limits, rather than persist with a complicated colour-code system that has never been used properly and that barely anyone understands,” said Bishop.

“This smacks of a government that is simply unwilling to cede control and let New Zealanders get on with things.”

The Greens

The Green Party wants “much stronger baseline protections” to keep people safe from omicron, as well as additional protections for spikes in infections and any new variants. The party said it does not support changes to the existing Covid protection measures.

In particular, the Greens have called on the government to:

  • Rollout a school-based vaccination programme to ensure high and equitable vaccine coverage among eligible children;
  • Work alongside Māori and Pasifika leadership to achieve high equity in vaccine coverage; and
  • Provide free N95 masks or equivalent for everyone, starting in schools for both children and teachers.

Act

Act’s David Seymour accused the prime minister of wanting to hang onto control, pointing out it took 22 minutes for her to announce two minutes’ worth of changes to our Covid rules. “A real leader would cut to the chase and then be open to scrutiny from journalists, not preach to us at length,” said Seymour.

On the substantive changes announced, Seymour said it made no sense not to implement them immediately. “Waiting until April 5 for vaccine passes and mandates to go makes no sense. They should go immediately,” he said.

“A gathering limit of 200 with seating rules still in place will be little relief for the hospitality sector. This is just more control from government.”

For a full summary of today’s announcement, click here

Out now on The Spinoff: a second season of FIRST

A brand new season of interview series FIRST starts on The Spinoff this week, with dancer, Celebrity Treasure Island star and all-round entertainer Lance Savali telling us about his first failed experiences with hair dye, earliest stage performances and much more.

Like last year, when we heard the stories behind the firsts of New Zealand musicians, actors, comedians and politicians, we’ve got another exciting mix of guests coming up in season two – from comedians Urzila Carlson and Joe Daymond to musicians Disciple Pati, Liz Stokes from The Beths and more. 

Subscribe to The Spinoff on YouTube for new episodes every Wednesday, and visit thespinoff.co.nz/videos to watch every episode so far.

All the big Covid announcements, summarised

A lot of changes were just announced to our Covid restrictions. Here are the key dates, times and top lines.

From 11.59pm this coming Friday, March 25:

  • Outdoor gathering limits will be removed.
  • Indoor gathering limits will be increased to 200.
  • QR code scanning will be scrapped.
  • Outdoor face mask requirements removed.

From 11.59pm on Monday, April 4:

  • Vaccine passes will no longer be required – but businesses can keep using them if they wish.
  • Vaccine mandates will be dropped for education, police and defence force workers – and for workers at businesses that have been mandated to use vaccine passes, such as hospitality.

Most vaccine mandates dropped, passes and outdoor gathering limits scrapped

Vaccine passes will no longer be required within a fortnight, from 11.59pm on April 4. Ahead of that, outdoor gathering limits will be ditched, and indoor gathering restrictions increased to 200, in time for this coming weekend. QR code scanning will also be scrapped at midnight on Friday. All these changes apply to the “red” setting of our Covid restrictions.

Along with passes, from 11.59pm on April 4, vaccine mandates will be dropped for education, police and defence force workers – and for businesses operating vaccine passes, such as hospitality workers. Whether health sector mandates can be narrowed is being looked into.

Asked whether boards of trustees could still require teachers at their schools to be vaccinated, Ardern said she would have to check.

If businesses wish to keep using vaccine passes they can, said Ardern, but they will not longer be mandatory.

Speaking from parliament, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the current traffic light framework will stay in place in case of an omicron resurgence or new variants, but with changes.

We need to continue to use some tools to keep our vulnerable communities safe, said Ardern, and when case numbers grow we will need to act to slow that spread down. “We currently predict we’ll have a continuous rolling baseline of potentially a few thousand cases a day, and we also predict we’ll have occasional spikes,” she said.

Mask wearing, at red, will remain in place – but only inside.

At orange, there will be no gathering capacity limits but guidance will be firmed up. “We’re encouraging over 500-person-capacity indoor events to provide more capacity or seating,” said Ardern. No changes will be made to the green setting.

A graph shared by PM Jacinda Ardern (Photo / supplied)

Reflecting back on the past two years of the pandemic, Ardern said that on this day in 2020 there were just 36 new community cases and it felt like we still had some “control” over the virus.

Putting our health first remained the best economic response, said Ardern. But the PM acknowledged that it has been “bloody hard” and thanked New Zealanders for their sacrifices throughout the pandemic. “I imagine every family has had a difficult conversation with someone in their life about Covid, about vaccines, about mandates,” she said. “There has been one unifying factor: everyone is safer. But everyone is tired.”

She added: “Everyone is fatigued, and some are worried that means we don’t care about each other any more. I know that is not the case. We’re not tired for nothing – the sacrifices and hard work have brought us here today.”

The next review of the red light setting will take place on April 4.

Watch: PM to speak on Covid restrictions

A possible sign of what’s to come: gone are the yellow and white Covid-19 banners that have adorned the Beehive theatrette for much of the past 24 months. Instead, new many-coloured Covid banners have been revealed today – although as commenters online pointed out, there’s a suspicious similarity to Apple Airpods.

New banners! (Photo: Justin Giovannetti)

The new banners are linked to a Māori-focused Covid campaign, so we may not have seen the official end of yellow and white stripes.

The prime minister Jacinda Ardern is minutes away from outlining next steps in our Covid response. You can tune in below or follow along with our live coverage from 11am.

Announcement on future of mandates, vaccine passes, due at 11am

Jacinda Ardern will unveil changes to our Covid-19 response framework at 11am this morning.

That will likely mean an end date for vaccine mandates, passes and possibly a rejigging of our current red light setting. As a result, gathering restrictions – currently set at 100 with proof of vaccination – will likely change too.

While little has been revealed of exactly we can expect, the deputy prime minister Grant Robertson told The Spinoff people will be happy with the announcement. “This has been a massive journey for us as a country and people have sacrificed a lot,” he said.

Grant Robertson addressing media in Auckland (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

“We’ve saved a lot of lives and businesses have been able to keep operating. We want to keep making steps forward – this is the toughest time, in many ways, for businesses and households but it’s the time we have the most tools to deal with it in terms of the vaccine and antiviral drugs.”

Robertson defended the 48 hour delay in making today’s announcement following a cabinet meeting on Monday. “We finished our cabinet meeting around 1pm on Monday, we then had another cabinet committee meeting… it’s better for us to get this right, to make sure we know what we’re announcing can be implemented in a timely manner.”

Meanwhile, in a Spinoff exclusive, Robertson said he’s hoping for an orange tie this coming budget day. Jacinda Ardern typically picks out the specific budget tie, but the deputy PM said: “I’ve got a few orange ties now so I’m trying to steer the prime minister in that way.”

The food at the finance minister’s breakfast, reviewed

Breakfast is defined as “food eaten in the morning” and the spread on offer at this morning’s annual finance minister breakfast certainly fitted that descriptor.

I’ve been intermittently following an intermittent fasting diet for the past few weeks but after being presented with a plate of lukewarm bacon, eggs and hashbrowns – well who could judge me for partaking. (The fire alarm was probably responsible for the temperature, by the way).

Aside from some slightly overdone eggs (again, fire alarm to blame) and a lack of seasoning (probably intentional as the meal was primarily for a business crowd), this was a fine feast. The hashbrowns were perfectly crunchy, the bacon that traditionally buffet-level of oily.

There appeared to only be one pain au chocolat in among a basket of regular croissants, which I think was an oversight. Surely the correct ratio is three chocolats to one croissant.

Free food (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Air NZ to fly direct to New York – but it’ll take 16 hours

Air New Zealand will finally launch its long-awaited direct route between Auckland and New York.

Originally planned for before Covid-19, the route will now be available for bookings from September.

According to 1News, it will be a long time to spend on a plane – roughly 16 to 18 hours. The service, on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, will run three times a week.

“The US has always been a key market for us, and this new route cements our commitment to developing growing tourism opportunities between the two countries,” chief executive Greg Foran said.

2022 to be a ‘challenging year for the NZ economy’ – finance minister

It’s going to be difficult year for New Zealand’s economy – but we will get through it. That was the key message from finance minister Grant Robertson, who has just wrapped up his annual business breakfast speech in Auckland during which he laid out his priorities and goals for the forthcoming financial year.

Despite Robertson explaining he was “sick” of talking about Covid-19, the pandemic and the government’s response to it were a major feature of his speech. “We’re in a robust state to deal with an outbreak of omicron,” he said, defending the two year elimination strategy. “I stand by that approach being the best economic response,” he said. As a result, the health system was withstanding the current outbreak “remarkably” well.

On the economic issue most prominently facing New Zealanders – the growing cost of living – Robertson said this year will be hard. However, he avoided using the word “crisis” when discussing the expenses facing people at the moment. “[2022] is going to be a challenging year for the New Zealand economy and the global economy,” he said.

Growing inflation was always going to be an issue this year, Robertson said, but it had started to “turn a corner” before the war in Ukraine. The invasion was having a significant impact on the global economy and “the volatility will continue”. The conflict was “unlikely to be short”, said Robertson, but he remained confident about New Zealand’s resilience.

Addressing the recent petrol tax cut, Robertson claimed this was a response to the “immediate spike” in the cost of living. However he rejected the possibility of cutting GST. That would lead to a debate on what areas should have the added tax removed. “If you take it off fresh fruit and vegetables… then you get into an argument of what’s the difference between beetroot and canned beetroot,” he said.

Robertson also said tax breaks, for example removing tax on incomes up to $40,000, were not feasible. That would cost in the realm of $30 billion and lead to significant cuts to health and education spending.

Finance minister Grant Robertson (Photo: Getty/Hagen Hopkins/Stringer)

Robertson dedicated much of his speech to talking up the Covid strategy that has got us through the past two years. Drivers of our success, said Robertson, included the government being “nimble and adaptive” to changing situations. “I’m staggered by the way that we were able to get things out the door quickly,” said Robertson, citing the wage subsidy. “The fact that we were able to be nimble and adaptable is something that we can’t lose.”

Partnership between government, the private sector, iwi and individual people was also key, he said. But, we need to diversify our economy as we “look to the future”.

At 11am today, the prime minister will lay out changes to our Covid response. Robertson said he was simply the “warm-up act” for that announcement but refused to provide any hints as to what could be announced.

Event hosted by Grant Robertson evacuated after fire alarm

A finance breakfast being hosted by deputy prime minister Grant Robertson this morning was derailed before it had even really started.

A fire alarm at the Cordis led to an evacuation of the event and the entire Auckland CBD hotel, with Robertson and guests forced to wait on the street outside. Four fire engines were called to the hotel and after 15-minute investigation, we were allowed back inside.

Fire engines outside the Cordis (photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

The event, hosted by the Auckland Business Chamber, will see Robertson lay out the government’s objectives for the coming year. Chamber head Michael Barnett told me he wasn’t expecting the morning to start the way it did, a sentiment shared by Robertson. “Nowadays we roll with whatever,” he told The Spinoff.

I asked whether a hotel resident burning their toast could have been responsible: “Yeah, probably,” laughed Robertson.

I’ve now safely returned to my seat and a waiting pain au chocolat I left at my table. We’ll have more from the event as speeches get under way.