Live updates, January 29: ‘Bedroom encounter’ leads to MIQ staffer sacking; more evidence of transmission at Pullman

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for January 29, keeping you up to date with the latest local and international news. Reach me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

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3.30pm: What’s happening in… New Plymouth

Time for another edition of The Spinoff live updates’ sporadic regional news wrap. Today, I’m checking in on the fine folk of Taranaki.

Fonterra is in hot water (or, hot… milk?) for spilling 170,000 litres of skim milk into the sea from its Taranaki plant. As RNZ reported, the dairy giant blamed the mass spillage on an “open valve”. The leak reportedly left “globules of fat” in the Tasman Sea. Fonterra’s general manager for lower North Island operations, Tony MacLean, told RNZ the fault caused milk to overwhelm the plants wastewater system. “A valve on a pipe that we transfer milk through opened, releasing milk into the waste water drain instead of it reaching its intended location of another milk silo,” he said.

New Zealand music giants/the country’s Nickelback, Six60, are returning for a sell-out Taranaki show this weekend. It’ll mark the band’s second date in the region within 12 months and is likely to sell more than 15,000 tickets. As Stuff reported, the band have now announced “back-up” dates for the current tour in case a Covid-19 outbreak leads to cancellations.

Meanwhile, The Spinoff’s New Plymouth local Tara Ward has recommended any visitors to the area check out the Festival of Lights at Pukekura Park before it finishes this weekend. “Bloody lovely way to spend a dark evening, wandering around the park under all the light installations, and it’s free too. Happily they managed to repair five of the six lilypad lights that were cruelly destroyed by lily/light-hating concert goer a few weeks ago. If you like giant toadstools that glow in the dark, the FOL is all your dreams come true.”

I really do like giant toadstools that glow in the dark. How could you not?

2.05pm: Cruise ship crew denied entry to NZ after failing to get visas

Immigration minister Kris Faafoi is holding an impromptu press conference at parliament after announcing that the Le Laperouse cruise ship has been refused entry to New Zealand.

“When the cruise ship… was given permission by the director general of health, under a Maritime Border Order, to travel to New Zealand that approval was on the condition that Le Laperouse obtained the necessary visas from Immigration New Zealand (INZ). That was made clear to the ship’s agents at least twice,” Faafoi said.

While 29 crew members were granted essential worker visas to enter the country, 61 others were denied on the basis they were not essential for the purpose of the ship’s travel here. That included hairdressers, bartenders and masseurs, Faafoi said.

Its options are that it turn around or, if it cannot do that, it will be escorted to port. The 29 who do have visas can stay for the maintenance, with the 61 other crew required to leave as soon as possible. The other option is for the ship to dock, refuel and leave immediately. Those discussions are happening now, said Faafoi

“While the ship was given Ministry of Health clearance to undertake maintenance work here in New Zealand, and to deliver the ship here for the New Zealand business, a key condition of that was that all crew have the appropriate visas.”

He added: “The New Zealand firm that has contracted the ship I understand has begun marketing and selling cruises before the process played out. I can charitably called that unwise.” He said he sympathised with those who had bought cruises or were relying on working on the cruise.

The Spinoff’s political editor Justin Giovannetti says this news is proof of how the rest of the world is acting like the pandemic is over. “The fact that a fancy boat full of non-critical workers just kept coming despite being waved the red flag is just proof of how the rest of the world is just carrying on as normal,” he said. “People are going on tropical vacations, flying and acting like it’s 2019.”

1.10pm: More evidence of possible transmission at Pullman; no new community cases

Updated

The Ministry of Health is investigating two possible additional cases of Covid-19 at the Pullman hotel – the same managed isolation facility where the recent community cases stayed after returning to New Zealand.

Minister for Covid-19 response Chris Hipkins said “there is evidence there could have been transmission between the two cases” at the Pullman. They were both staying on the second floor of the hotel.

There are no new cases of Covid-19 in the community, Hipkins confirmed. That’s despite three people with the South African strain of the coronavirus spending several days in the community before testing positive over the last week.

Genome sequencing has found two border cases reported earlier this week are linked, said Bloomfield. Both were in isolation on the second floor of the Pullman hotel.

No reason to change travel plans – Hipkins

Hipkins has provided reassurance to Aucklanders ahead of the long weekend, saying there is “no reason why people’s travel plans should change”.

Yesterday, 6,121 tests were processed with over 38,000 tests having been processed over the last seven days.

ESR preliminary results from the Pullman hotel are expected either later tonight or tomorrow morning, said Hipkins. “We absolutely need to know exactly what might have been happening at the Pullman and what needs to change as a result”

Ten close contacts of the two most recent community cases – the north Auckland father and daughter – have all tested negative. Since Sunday, nearly 2% of Northland’s population has been tested, said Bloomfield.

As of yesterday afternoon, 249 people had received a notification via the NZ Covid Tracer app, having scanned in to one of the locations of interest connected to the two Auckland cases. 262 people linked to those locations have been tested and are isolated. 2,940 community tests from the Auckland region were processed yesterday.

314 of the 353 guests who have left the Pullman have received negative tests. Most of the rest are awaiting results, said Bloomfield.

Of the 39 guests who have left the Pullman who are yet to receive test results, Bloomfield said contact has been made with all 353 guests, and some of them may have been tested. He said further follow-ups were under way.

Asked about the bedroom “encounter” between an MIQ staffer and a returnee (see 1pm update), Hipkins said this was “unacceptable”.

Hipkins said he believed the pair had been passing notes, one written on the back of a mask. A bottle of wine was involved, he added – but Hipkins couldn’t confirm the encounter was sexual. “At the end of the day we’re dealing with human beings. We ask everyone to adhere to the standards we put in place,” he said. “We absolutely make clear what the rules are and if they’re not followed there are consequences.”

Meanwhile, Bloomfield announce that there are six new border cases of Covid-19. There are now 72 active cases in the country.

1.00pm: ‘Bedroom encounter’ leads to MIQ staffer sacking

Updated

An employee at the Grand Millennium managed isolation hotel has been sacked after a 20 minute “encounter” in a returnee’s bedroom.

A Stuff report revealed that the hotel staffer lost their job and was given a formal police warning after the incident, which happened on January 7. An ongoing review of the MIQ facility is now underway to determine if more security measures are required.

According to the report, the so-called encounter happened when the hotel staff member went to make a delivery to the returnee’s room. Speaking at today’s 1pm press briefing, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said he believed the delivery was a bottle of wine. He understood the pair had been passing notes, one written on the back of a mask.

“At the end of the day we’re dealing with human beings. We ask everyone to adhere to the standards we put in place,” he said. “We absolutely make clear what the rules are and if they’re not followed there are consequences.” Hipkins could not confirm whether the encounter was sexual in nature.

The incident was discovered after the hotel’s security manager was sent to check on the staffer after he did not return following the delivery.

The head of MIQ, Brigadier Jim Bliss, has called the incident “incredibly irresponsible and extremely disappointing”.

Both the staffer and the returnee have since tested negative for Covid-19 and Bliss said “health officials deemed this risk to be negligible/low”.

A Covid-19 outbreak in Melbourne last year was originally believed to be linked to security guards having sex with returnees, however this was unsubstantiated.

12.30pm: Hipkins, Bloomfield to provide Covid-19 update

The director general of health Ashley Bloomfield is back for today’s Covid-19 briefing alongside minister Chris Hipkins.

It’s expected today’s press conference will reveal the latest results from community testing along with any updates to the contact tracing locations from the recent Covid-positive cases.

Watch below:

12.00pm: Schools prepare for Covid-19 disruption ahead of new term

At this stage it looks like New Zealand may have dodged another coronavirus-infused bullet, with no evidence yet of community transmission of Covid-19.

However – as Ashley Bloomfield said earlier this week – we’re not breathing out just yet.

Ahead of the new academic year beginning, schools are preparing for possible Covid-19 restrictions. Whangārei’s Manaia View School principal Leanne Otene told RNZ the recent Northland case had prompted the school to look over its “resurgence plan” for coping with another outbreak of the virus.

“The senior management team have looked at resurgence plans over the last couple of days, just making sure all those things are in place. It’s about reassuring our communities at this time that we are as prepared now as we would have been if something had happened later in the year in 2020,” she said.

Deidre Shea from the Secondary Principals’ Association told the outlet that the latest cases were a reminder to everyone that another lockdown could happen at any moment – and schools need to be prepared.

“We don’t want to go back there, but if there’s a need to, and we look at what’s happening across the world and we know that there may be a time when we need to do it to keep everybody safe,” she said.

Read the full report here

10.45am: New Zealand’s economy continues to recover faster than expected from Covid-19

Political editor Justin Giovannetti writes:

New year, same trend. Another report from treasury shows that the New Zealand economy is once again doing slightly better than forecast, reflected by healthier government books.

Crown accounts to the end of November show tax revenues $0.7 billion higher than forecast in the earlier half-year economic and fiscal update – the report writers in the treasury are kept busy. Expenses were down by $0.5 billion, mostly because government work programmes were interrupted by Covid-19, which isn’t overwhelmingly positive.

While the country is still taking on billions of dollars in new debt every month, the government is using the small cash bump to borrow less money than it had expected. Labour has resisted calls to redirect some of the unspent billions approved for the Covid-19 recovery to dealing with housing, climate change or child poverty.

In a statement, finance minister Grant Robertson said his plan is to let the economy get back to growing. “This year our focus is on continuing that momentum,” he said.

Job numbers up in December – Stats NZ

Filled job numbers rose nearly 38,000 in December, according to new Stats NZ data.

But, despite the 1.7% increase from November, annual job growth has stalled. “When compared with the same time last year, jobs were up by only 0.6%, an increase of just under 13,000 jobs,” business insights manager Sue Chapman said.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we usually experienced annual increases of between 2 and 4%.”

On The Spinoff: An open letter to Jacinda Ardern on a People’s Vaccine

An open letter to prime minister Jacinda Ardern, minister of foreign affairs Nanaia Mahuta and trade minister Damien O’Connor on supporting a People’s Vaccine:

Dear Prime Minister Ardern and Ministers Mahuta and O’Connor,

The world has watched Aotearoa New Zealand’s remarkable response to Covid-19. Our leaders struck a different path from many other countries, one informed by experts, and our team of five million pulled together to keep all New Zealanders safe. As the world continues watching, we can demonstrate our kindness and solidarity by supporting a People’s Vaccine, so we can all get through this pandemic together.

We, the undersigned 42 organisations, request that Aotearoa New Zealand support a People’s Vaccine and back India and South Africa’s proposal for a temporary relaxation of intellectual property rules from certain provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the prevention, containment and treatment of Covid-19.

The proposed waiver would last until widespread vaccination has occurred and the majority of the world is immune, and would be reviewed annually. If implemented, it will result in significantly expanded production of Covid-19 vaccines, lowering prices and widening availability, particularly for low-income developing countries. The market monopolies conferred under the WTO patent protection regime and the restrictive pricing structures set by the pharmaceutical industry are among the largest barriers for low income developing countries to access essential medicines.

Read the full letter here

9.30am: Harawira furious Northland checkpoint shut by police

New plans are afoot to replace the iwi checkpoint closed by police yesterday in Northland.

Tai Tokerau border control spokesman Hone Harawira is horrified that the upcoming long weekend will see thousands of Aucklanders head north without having to pass through any of the group’s “information centres”.

A meeting will take place tonight to discuss possible new plans.

Harawira told RNZ he’s still trying to work out why the checkpoint was shut down, especially with the South African Covid-19 variant in the community.

“Why on earth did [the police] put all of that energy into stopping us from just providing quality information to Joe public about where they might go to get tested if they’re in Northland and what the emergency numbers are,” Harawira said.

He said the police action wasn’t “heavy-handed” but it was “irresponsible”.

“There was no reason why we couldn’t have had the same officers [that shut the checkpoint down] assist with traffic management,” he said.

8.00am: ‘Better picture’ of new Covid cases expected today

Ashley Bloomfield yesterday promised some clarity for nervous Aucklanders who want to know whether to can their long weekend plans.

The next Covid-19 update is scheduled, as always, for 1pm today when Bloomfield and the Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins will provide the latest on contact tracing and testing following the new community cases.

“We will have a very good picture [today], especially with all the testing that has been done,” Bloomfield told reporters.

Yesterday, Hipkins said there remained “no evidence” of community transmission, despite the three Covid-infected individuals – all of whom have the South African variant of the virus – spending almost a fortnight out of managed isolation.

Meanwhile, the opposition is continuing its push for a full review of all managed isolation facilities.

National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said: “There is still evidence of cohort mingling in MIQ facilities, where recent arrivals are able to mix and mingle with people coming towards the end of their stay. That doesn’t make sense.”

7.45am: Top stories from The Bulletin

At the moment it looks like the top of the country might have got away with a very lucky escape, in the latest Covid scare. But we’re by no means out of the woods yet, despite no cases of community transmission yet being announced. As our live updates reports, the ministry yesterday confirmed that the two latest cases from the Pullman hotel to end up in the community are a father and daughter, and that there was a single chain of transmission between them and the Northland case. This means basically that one got it from the other, rather than the virus passing through other, unfound people first.

Still, there are plenty of questions hanging in the air from this incident. Toby Manhire wrapped them yesterday morning – some have now been addressed, others we’re still waiting on answers. For example – what exactly happened at the Pullman, and could it end up happening at other managed isolation facilities too? “While the Northland case was on the same floor as the person from whom it was contracted, this new pair were on another floor, leading experts to ask whether the infection might have spread via ventilation systems or water pipes,” wrote Manhire. Radio NZ reports this morning on calls to do a full audit of the managed isolation system.

It has also resulted in the lengthening of travel restrictions on New Zealanders by Australia. Yesterday the country announced it was putting another 72 hours on the suspension of quarantine-free travel from New Zealand, meaning at this stage it will recommence on Sunday night. But, will it really? If more cases are in fact found in the community, that will be deeply unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Northland case has resulted in a decision from the Māori Party to avoid travelling up to Waitangi Day this year, reports One News. They said their decision was based on standing by iwi who are concerned about travel into the Northland region right now, offering support as well to the community checkpoints in the area. More information on whether the PM and other government MPs will attend is expected in the coming days.

Read more and subscribe to The Bulletin here

7.30am: Yesterday’s headlines

Genome sequencing linked the pair of new Covid-19 cases – an adult and a child – to the same strain of the virus detected at the Pullman Hotel.

The Ministry of Health said it had found no evidence of community transmission from the new Covid-19 cases. Investigations are continuing into how they caught the virus.

The prime minister said “extra requirements” were being considered for people who leave MIQ.

Australia again placed a 72 hour halt on quarantine-free travel from New Zealand. At this stage quarantine-free travel across the Tasman will recommence on Sunday night.

Trade minister Damien O’Connor reportedly ruffled feathers in the Australian government by advising them to speak with ‘more diplomacy’ when dealing with China.

The Māori Party announced it would not attend Waitangi this Waitangi Day “on iwi advice” following the emergence of Covid-19 in Northland over the weekend.

The Sounds like Summer Festival set to take place in Matakana this weekend was cancelled due to the ongoing Covid situation.

The government unveiled a suite of climate pledges including a promise to fully decarbonise buses by 2035.




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